Today Android and iOS dominate the smartphone market, combining to provide the operating systems for more than 95 percent of smartphones. Still, not everyone is a fan of the Apple-Google mobile universe.
If you’re wary of Android’s security shortcomings, tired of iOS’s overly aggressive auto-correct, or interested in tapping out of the Apple vs. Google mobile war, however, you'll be pleased to know that a number of new open-source mobile OSs are slated to debut in the next year or so.
From Canonical’s Ubuntu to Firefox to Samsung, several big-name corporations and organizations will release their own open-source smartphone platforms this year. So grab your Tux the Linux Penguin gear and read on.
Ubuntu, Canonical’s popular desktop OS, is finally making the jump to mobile. Not to be confused with Ubuntu for Android (which launches a full version of Ubuntu when your phone is docked to a PC), the touch version of the organization’s popular open-source operating system is available now as a developer preview.
Canonical has said repeatedly that it wants to create something unique with the touch version of Ubuntu, and the developer preview release of the OS holds true to that mission. Most notable is the absence of a lock screen—instead, you get a “welcome screen” featuring an animated circle that displays custom info about your phone’s status, such as missed calls or received messages and tweets.
The OS relies on touch gestures, and Ubuntu gave every edge of the screen a purpose: Swiping left brings up a list of apps; swiping to the right switches to a previously opened app; gesture toward the bottom brings up in-app navigation controls, and swiping up controls the phone’s status icons without leaving the app.
The OS’s heavy reliance on these gestures means that you can access any app or function on the phone without having to go back to the home screen.
The home screen does serve a purpose, however, and Ubuntu says you’ll be able to customize it with info from hundreds of sources, including Wikipedia, music, video, and online stores.
Though Canonical originally projected that hardware running the touch version of Ubuntu would be available later this year, the organization now expects them to hit the market in early 2014.
Like Google’s browser-based desktop OS, Firefox OS is built entirely on a foundation of open Web standards, and every element—down to the phone’s dialer—runs as an HTML5 application.
As a result, “apps” in Firefox OS aren’t apps in the traditional sense; they're glorified links to Web apps that the OS permits to access features and data on your phone.
People in North America or Europe who find Firefox OS’s open-source orientation appealing may have trouble getting hold of a handset running the operating system any time soon, however.
Since HTML5 apps depend relatively little on on a phone’s hardware, Mozilla thinks that its OS could match best with low-end phones that are prone to performance problems. For this reason, the organization has set its sights on developing countries, and plans to make South America its initial market. The first wave of Firefox OS devices will also be available in Hungary, Montenegro, Poland, Serbia, and Spain later this year, Mozilla says.
You won’t find many bigger names in the tech industry than Samsung and Intel, so their partnership in developing the Tizen mobile OS has naturally turned some heads.
Tizen is an open-source, Linux-based mobile platform that has a lot in common with Android in terms of look and feel. But whereas Android relies on Google services for many of its functions, Tizen will be easy to modify to support non-Google services.
This adaptability is especially important in Asia, since Google’s services are largely blocked in China, and Google lags behind companies like Baidu and Yahoo Japan in regional popularity.
Samsung has achieved its powerful position in the smartphone market thanks to Android-based products. The Korean company's decision to invest in Tizen indicates a willingness to lessen its dependence on Google.
Just a few hours after its bizarre, Broadway-style Galaxy S4 announcement on March 14, Samsung confirmed its plans to release a Tizen smartphone later this year. Not surprisingly the first mobile carrier will be Asian: NTT DoCoMo, the largest phone carrier in Japan.
Samsung says that it has no intention of cutting ties with Google, but the company clearly has no desire to keep all its eggs in an Android basket.
Finnish startup Jolla’s Sailfish OS is a reincarnation of MeeGo, a Linux-based mobile OS developed by a group of ex-Nokia employees.
Though Sailfish is still in the alpha stage of development, Jolla released the operating system's software development kit last month as a free download for Linux users.
Details about the new OS are sparse, but it appears to have a clean interface and to emphasize gestures for multitasking. Some observers have drawn parallels between the platform’s home-screen icons and the live tiles in Windows Phone 8.
Sailfish is set to debut sometime this year.
Open source is a common theme
It definitely remains to be seen what kind of an impact Ubuntu Touch, Firefox OS, Tizen, and Sailfish will have on the smartphone market, and how Google and Apple respond to the influx of new mobile platforms.
We’ll have to wait a few more months before we can get our hands on any real hardware that runs these alternative OSs, but the fact that so many big-name companies and organizations are backing their development is promising.
And anyone who appreciates open-source software has reason to be optimistic about this trend in mobile for 2013.