AlexJ's Computer Science Journal

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State of Mobile Operating Systems

… and thoughts about their future.

When we think of Mobile Operating Systems we mostly think of Android and iOS which have the vast majority of the market share. I am a big (openly) Android fan for many reasons. Though it’s not perfect (for example, I would like the development model to be a little more community based than it is now) it is the one I will stick with for short term, at least. As for Apple’s iOS, I do them give some credit for some of the things they did from a tech point of view, but because of the way Apple does things, I can’t approve of them. But I do recognize their dominance on some important markets (like US).
It’s not perfect that these two have almost all of the market share, but at least it’s a better balance than what we have on the desktop and laptop market due to Windows.

But let’s talk about other operating systems. And, unfortunately, I have to start with Microsoft’s Windows Mobile. Fortunately, I’ll stop quick because even they realized that they failed in this market. So, after making a big push (see the Nokia destruct…er.. acquisition) they toned things down in the last months. However, I do expect them do be around and have a reasonable share just because of their name and influence. Which is not a bad thing, because they might still bring new things to the industry.

Now to come to some OS-s that are very promising. Starting with Mozilla’s FirefoxOS. As a Firefox fan, I watched FirefoxOS closely and I like the way things are going. They are ‘the underdog’ and seem do be doing a good job so far. Mozilla managed to get FirefoxOS on hardware through partnerships with local manufacturers. And they chose a good market, the low cost devices, where I think they can have a very big impact. It’s the same market that Google recently wanted to push for with Android One, so Mozilla was on to something.
FirefoxOS, of course, pushes a lot on Web technologies (like HTML5). Which is good because 1) they are good at that and 2) they are not building an Android clone. Like the others OS-s we will be discussing, FirefoxOS is based on Linux, but rebuilds almost everything that Android has (though it does share some very low level things like the HAL).
Those things, combined with the fact that they will have the support of many Open Source enthusiasts, makes me hopeful about FirefoxOS having its place on the mobile market in the near future.
As a personal note, I would like to see FirefoxOS on something else other than just (smart)phones. The first obvious things would be the tablet. But I would much more like to see a Chromebook competitor based on FirefoxOS. Firefox still is an awesome browser and combining that with Google’s great idea of building a browser-oriented OS could be something worth having. There is currently a Kickstarter project to build a Chromecast-like device based on FirefoxOS called Matchstick.

Next, there is Tizen. Tizen has a complicated history, starting out with a merger of small projects from Nokia and Intel, and then combining with projects from Samsung, all while receiving the backing of the Linux Foundation. Currently, Tizen is a project of the Linux Foundation so you would say that it’s even more ‘open source’ friendly than FirefoxOS. But the truth is that the ones pushing it are Samsung and Intel. Which is not necessarily a bad thing and it does make sense.


Tizen is much closer to Android than FirefoxOS is, but still build from scratch on top of Linux, doing the same things Android does but different. And the project comes more out of the need to have a viable alternative to Android. Samsung is probably the biggest Android device manufacturer but knows that it’s dependent on Google for Android. And Samsung also knows that it has the power to create that alternative. It’s also in Intel’s interest to push into the ARM-ruled mobile market with its chips and backing up Tizen is a good move (though Intel also is one of the big supporters of Android too).
I had heard of Tizen for some time, but my real interaction with them was at LinuxCon Europe 2013 where they were one of the main attractions. I expected Samsung to launch several Tizen based products in the last year, but so far they haven’t. So I find the project in a strange state. They have the potential of launching something interesting and the position on the market to push Tizen close to Android and iOS, but they seem to be on standby. So either they are waiting for a better time to start the push or they are having doubts about it [citation needed], which would be sad.
So, for now, Tizen is also not touching mid and high end phones (where I think it has its place) and only limited to some low end phones. But it has been launched on Samsung Gear, which is the new hype in mobile devices.

One of Tizen’s cousins is also a potential big player in the mobile world: SailfishOS. Both it and the company behind it, Jolla, have their roots at Nokia. After Nokia decided to go with Windows Mobile, some people from Nokia left and started Jolla in an effort to reinvent Nokia’s vision. And the result was SalilfishOS and the Jolla Smartphone powered by that OS. SailfishOS is Linux based, using the open source mer component but a proprietary UI.


And that UI is what sets this OS apart from the rest. They tried to rethink the mobile interface like Apple and Google did a few years ago. Having recently held one such phone in my hand, I can say that the result is interesting so they may be on to something. But they are still one of the new additions to the mobile OS list so it’s still pretty soon to tell.
However, seeing how Nokia will be soon back in the smartphone market, we might expect them joining the team back and releasing Jolla’s product as a Nokia branded phone (I am just hypothesizing / wishful thinking). Nokia is currently lagging behind because of the Microsoft fiasco, but they too are focusing on UI as seen from the N1 tablet which is Android based but with a custom UI.

Another contender is the Ubuntu Phone by Canonical. Canonical has made a name for its self due to the Ubuntu distribution for desktops and laptops. Though they alienated some of their users when they made the decision to move to Unity for their interface, we since then found out that Unity was their future bet. More specifically, come up with an interface that will provide the same look and field across platforms, from desktops and laptops to tables and phones.
Canonical’s goal is to provide a unified experience and that is going to be their selling point for the mobile world. That, along with some other things from Apple they try to put into their products makes them more of a competitor for the iOS market (though, they still are far away from that).
It’s hard to tell if they are going to make it since Microsoft did exactly the same thing with the move to Metro. And had the same results: pushing a mobile interface to a desktop platform makes desktop users angry. Also, Microsoft, as stated earlier, have backed down from mobile war, concentrating on desktops where they are still ok and maybe improving their tablet market share.
So Canonical will have a tough battle to fight. Even if they have some new ideas and interesting tech features lined up for their Ubuntu Phone, if they plan to fight against Apple and Microsoft for the users, it’s not going to be easy. Also, because of their record of taking an Apple-style approach of “we know what is better for you” and not being an open source company that listens to the community, it may be that not even open source geeks will stand by them.

All products discussed so far (with the exception of iOS and Windows) are open source (at least partially) and they are all based on Linux. But they all have distinct frameworks (some share bits and pieces). So it’s kind of strange, because you would expect to see many more forks on the market, especially Android forks. They do exists, so let’s also mention them.

An honorable mention is Microsoft/Nokia’s Nokia X which was Android with the Google parts replaced by Microsoft ones. Seems like a match made in hell, but I was kind of glad it existed. Because that was the power of open source: being able to create a similar alternative and bring your own features to the mix. Though it might not have been a happy moment for Google (like Oracle repackaging Red Hat’s Linux distro), it was something nice for Android fans that were also Microsoft fans (I guess they exist). But, alas, the project had a very short life.

Also worth mentioning is Amazon‘s FireOS (not to be confused with FirefoxOS). It has been deployed on popular devices such as Kindle and some not so popular devices such as the Fire Phone and Fire TV. But I think Amazon is still deciding what they actually want to do with their OS.

The one I want to talk about is CyanogenMod, a very popular Android fork. Though I haven’t used it (since I actually like the Google ecosystem), I liked a lot the idea that it exists and was a strong community. Issues that weren’t addressed by Google could be addressed by CyanogenMod. Provide something different yet the same… and that’s open source.
But it seems like CyanogenMod turned into something different when they decided to become a company and launched a rather aggressive campaign against Google (they stated that they want to take Android from Google… which is not exactly how this works). They are having success with the OnePlus partnership, but that seems to be hitting some legal issues at the moment. So it’s a bit unclear where the project is going.
Still, I think that there is a place on the market for strong non-Google Androids (clones) and if not CyanogenMod, then someone else will come along.

So, it seems that it’s an interesting time for mobile operating systems. Plenty of choices and all with their benefits. This is great because we have seen how fast the mobile industry has evolved in such a short time and it looks like things will only get faster. This is in contrast with how slow things have been on the desktop market because of the Wintel monopoly, so it goes to show that a free market is a better market.

I am really curious how FIrefoxOS, Tizen, SailfishOS and Ubuntu will evolve and also I am waiting to see what new OS will come.

 

Errata

Regarding Cyanogen, there are actually two distributions. CyanogenMod is still the community version (like Fedora), while CyanogenOS is the commercial version (like RHEL) shipped by the company Cyanogen.

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