While iOS and Android command the largest share of the mobile operating system market, there are a few notable new challengers being shown off at Mobile World Congress 2014. Firefox by Mozilla, Ubuntu, and Sailfish by Jolla are a few of the better-known platforms.
The Firefox OS made a huge splash at the MWC, due in large part to the announcement that it will be targeted at users in emerging markets on devices costing as little as $25. Consistent with Mozilla’s ethos, the new operating system is truly open source, developed by Mozilla volunteers and developers from around the globe.
Firefox OS is written in HTML5, with the goal of allowing users to access the web and web content packaged as apps, making the OS experience similar to the experience of browsing the web. To make this accessible to users in emerging markets without developed internet infrastructure, Mozilla has partnered with seven carriers, including Telefonica and Deutsche Telekom, to promote Firefox OS together with robust data plans at affordable rates. According to Firefox OS representatives, the decision on which countries to launch in is dictated by which carriers are willing to provide these affordable plans. So far, Firefox OS has launched in 15 countries over the past 6 months on devices from 4 OEMs: LG, Alcatel, Huawei, and ZTE.
Overall, the Firefox OS looks very Android-like, but representatives at the MWC booth assured me that a UI update is coming. So far, sales have been solid, with Firefox OS devices reaching double-digit percentages on new device sales within the 15 countries it has launched in. Overall, Firefox OS looks like a great platform that will help many new smartphone users access and connect with the internet in a new way.
If Firefox OS looks Android like, Ubuntu is decidedly more similar to iOS. Ubuntu, which labels itself the “world’s most popular free OS” is making the transition from desktop computers to smartphones. The popular Linux OS sports a left-side navigation bar, and users can switch between views by tapping the phone. Instead of keys, Ubuntu has “hot edges”, which allow for transition between windows.
Different screens, called scopes, offer content segregated by themes, including music, photos, etc. Users can customize their scopes to reflect their interests. Ubuntu is compatible with HTML5 web apps and comes with a number of native applications installed, such as messaging, camera, and call capabilities. Users can also use the Ubuntu Dash to search for applications for download. Within apps, users can use the bottom edge to access app features, while the top edge allows users to change settings within the app. Right edge usage opens a carousel of windows, similar to tabs in a web browser, to allow for easy transition between applications.
Developed as a competitor to Android, Ubuntu is targeting users in both developed and emerging markets, and it will launch on BQ and Meizu devices in late 2013 or early 2014. In the interim, savvy smartphone users can install the Ubuntu OS on a device of their choice. Overall, it’s a beautiful operating system, but only time will tell whether users find it as engaging as some of its competitors.
Developed by a contingent of ex-Nokia programmers, Sailfish OS, which comes on Jolla devices, aims to bring an intuitive, gesture-based experience to cellphone users. To unlock the phone, users can double-tap the screen, which flicking the screen vertically engages the scroll feature.
Instead of using a home screen button, Jolla users swipe left or right to access content, and tap the bottom of the screen to close windows. By holding and dragging down the top edge of the screen, users can see if there is another screen “open” behind it, which is revealed by a soft glow. If the top of the screen starts to glow while being pressed, that means there is another window hiding behind the current one, which can be accessed by scrolling down from the options that appear.
Sailfish can be made Android-compatible via SDK installation or usage of a third-party app, such as Yandex. There are over 150+ free native apps, and the aforementioned hacks mean that users can access Google Play. The OS is closely integrated with the Jolla device itself. Changing the back casing of the phone from one color to another color changes the ambiance of the display. For example, switching to a green back casing changes the screen to a green glow. Currently, Sailfish runs on version 188.8.131.52 with version 184.108.40.2069 in beta for developers.
The Jolla phone runs on a Snapdragon 400 chipset, with 1 GB RAM, 16 GB internal memory, an 8 MP camera, and a 2100mAh battery. It’s a solid phone for users who are looking for a new experience that is still compatible with the Android OS.
Even though iOS and Android OS are seemingly dominant, competitive new operating systems play an important role in driving innovation for the industry as a whole. New operating systems, however niche, also provide users with alternatives to the mainstream platforms. Having choices is important, and the above operating systems are all interesting and strong options for smartphone users around the globe.