In February, I posted an article about the also-runnings in the battle for your pocket. Over the months since that post, there has been much progress for a few of these candidates, and quite a bit of setback for at least one. Let’s take a look at where they stand.
I like to get the bad news out of the way first. Blackberry has not had a good 2013. It’s stock price has plummeted from a high of ~$17 in February to a closing of ~$6 yesterday (full disclosure: I invest in Blackberry stock) and consumer interest has waned to the point that your average user on the street recognizes them as a has been. Most people using Blackberries today, I speculate, do so because their corporate account holders are too large to move quickly to another platform.
Blackberry has recently tried to draw attention to its cross-platform efforts around Blackberry Messenger, now available on Android and iOS. In these efforts, Blackberry may have a hope of resurrecting the name of the company, if not the form. In February I was optimistic the company could at least overtake Windows as a mobile platform, but this is no longer my opinion. Blackberry’s best hope is to divest itself of the hardware business and attempt to reorganize around its software and enterprise infrastructure offerings.
Don’t buy a Blackberry. Let’s move on.
Optimism abounds over at Jolla HQ in Finland. Just this past week Jolla (pronounced “yoh-lah”) officially unveiled its first consumer device, on sale now with Finnish telcoms, and coming to a provider near you… sometime.
Jolla’s Jolla (yes, that’s the name of the phone) runs Sailfish OS and their primary selling points seem to focus on, “The Other Half,” Android app compatibility, and an intuitive swipe-based interface. The Other Half refers to the back half of the physical phone that can be removed and replaced with new hardware accessories that also change the software of the phone. Right now I believe the only available function is to change the color of the wallpaper using different color back panels. Honestly, if Jolla has grander designs around The Other Half they are not marketing them well. I remain sceptical here, but at the same time, if the feature were to simply disappear, no harm no foul.
The other two areas of focus are far more interesting. Jolla went the Blackberry strategy by incorporating Android app compatibility right out of the box. I’m not sure of the delivery mechanism, but the intention is to provide a wellspring of apps available at launch, growing the user base and thereby attracting developers to build native Jolla apps. It didn’t really work for Blackberry, whose other issues overshadowed everything, but maybe it will work for Jolla.
Finally, promoting a swipe-based interface (instead of poking buttons) is both a positive step for the industry but also potentially alienating towards the company. Interfaces do not need to be efficient if people are comfortable with them, and thus iOS and Android were able to get away with legacy user experiences while still growing market share. Jolla, by promoting “different” from the beginning, is taking a chance. It could be really cool, or users could be left confused and frustrated. With my limited experience using swipe-based interfaces on Nokia Labs beta apps and the N9, as well as on the BB10, I can tell they are much quicker to navigate. In fact, any Android apps that now follow swipe guidelines are already seemingly quicker to navigate and use. A game of wait and see.
Mozilla’s Firefox OS
Firefox OS is the one alternative OS I may personally buy, partly because I am interested in an all-HTML user experience (a la the ill-fated WebOS), but also because they are inexpensive, lowering the platform buy-in cost. Mozilla’s strategy is the same as it’s been since the beginning: target the other 90% of the market who have access to cheap data in the developing world but no access to cheap hardware. The hardware certainly is less expensive than phones running iOS or Android.
Since February, we have seen quite a bit of physical devices appear in markets around the world, except the US. Sadly, Mozilla has officially announced they will not be bringing Firefox OS phones to US markets, at least not until later in 2014. Other markets have such options as the ZTE Open, the LG Fireweb, the Alcatel One Touch Fire, and the Geeksphone line of phones.
Currently, Firefox OS does not stack up to the likes of Android and iOS, but that’s not the point. These phones are competing with feature phones that are prevalent in developing mobile markets due to their low cost and bevy of necessary apps to live a modern digital life, such as WhatsApp messenger, Facebook, media players and basic browsing. The king of this market? Nokia’s S40 platform, though their share has been eroding due to inroads made by Samsung and LG.
What’s the fundamental difference between Firefox OS and the other platforms? A modern-seeming user interface is a draw, but the real power is in the ease by which developers should supposedly be able to bring to apps to market, including an app store. Current feature phone offerings do not include central app stores across different devices, nor are they easy to develop for. Firefox OS hopes to gain ground by changing this balance.
Canonical’s Ubuntu Touch
Canonical as a company have been having a rough time in the press recently, facing backlash in the developer community over their handling of certain open source projects, and facing backlash amongst end users of their Ubuntu-brand products for increasing invasions of privacy. It does not help that Mark Shuttleworth’s pet project to develop the most amazing smartphone ever failed at the amazingly-ambitious goal of raising $32 million via crowd-funding site IndieGoGo. 2013 has been a less-than-positive year for Canonical.
Despite the above, Canonical did manage to release version 1.0 of Ubuntu Touch, their mobile-friendly offering of the Ubuntu product. In this day and age of software hitting production-ready at version .001, you’d think a version 1.0 release would be available to the general market, but this is not the case. Version 1.0 means Ubuntu Touch is ready for beta-testers and OEMs to begin putting it on test phones for app development. The core OS functionality is there, but the bundled apps are not quite ready. The alternative OS with the most promise seems to be moving the slowest, even losing the device-to-market race against Jolla.
Ubuntu Touch is still not necessarily destined for the pile of has-beens. If anything, with other companies’ new devices hitting the market first, those devices may bear the brunt of the initial wave of consumer skepticism towards anything not Google or Apple. With consumers having wasted their incredulity on the first devices, Canonical may have an easier time with the second wave. Slow and steady may win the phone race to the third spot.
Linux Foundation’s Tizen
Tizen is the black sheep of the crowd. The platform seems to be shunning mainstream consumer attention, and instead focusing on backroom deals with OEMs to provide a mobile OS in places besides your pocket. Their biggest success seems to be with auto-makers, but even in that sphere, nothing has come to market. It seems that Tizen is following the path of its ancestors and not its cousins. Coming from the same family tree as Jolla’s Sailfish, Tizen is next iteration in a line of Linux-based open source mobile operating systems that focused more on developing technologies than on producing a final product. This is not a bad thing for the mobile ecosystem in general, as many ideas for how mobile OS should operate come from the lessons learned by these projects, but ultimately, it just means the projects will continue failing and then being repackaged into something newer and better. For the record, here’s a good family tree diagram of these mobile Linux projects, courtesy Wikipedia:
Since February, we’ve seen interesting developments in the Android-sphere as well. As you know, Android OS is effectively Google’s phone OS, despite being “controlled” by an industry consortium. In fact, the lack of control felt by members of this consortium have led them to begin developing their own products, including Samsung and LG.
It’s not just the industry players that are feeling frustrated with Google’s domination though. Google’s actions have irritated platform developers who feel they are unable to buy products running Android that are not permanently intertwined with Google’s online offerings. Their phones are mere shadows of their true potential unless you buy-in to the Google mantra of controlling all your data centrally with a single-sign-on account. For most consumers, this level of convenience is a dream come true, but for privacy-minded indiviuals and libertarians, it’s an abuse of the market by a dominating monopoly. I find myself siding increasingly with the latter, willing to forgo convenience for even a semblance of control.
From this anger, and the general tinkering attitude of the homebrew OS do-it-yourselfers, come two popular modifications, or “mods,” of Android: CyanogenMod and Replicant. Cyanogenmod started off as an open source, community-based effort to remove any Google- or manufacture-placed artificial restrictions on the Android OS. But recently, they received a massive cash injection from investors and have incorporated. With the money they’ve expanded their team, released a new user-friendly installer and even begun partnering with phone manufacturers to have their mod of Android used as the phone’s OS instead of the Google-provided Android. End users still have the benefit of using Android apps, but are not as restricted as before when it comes to using the phone they way they want.
In additional to Cyanogenmod, consumers can also access Replicant OS, which promises to be a completely free version of Android OS. Free in this case means free as in speech, not free as in beer. Replicant is still a community project, and not an incorporate group, but they get press with the Free Software Foundation and other outlets. Also, a recent Replicant blog posting about compatibility with the Fairphone brings up an interesting potential to partner with a hardware manufacturer in the future. Potential here.
With that, I finish my round up of the also-runnings. The market is still young, and it is in the best interests of the consumer to keep the market as competiive as possible. Both iOS and Android live in their own silo-ed worlds, but efforts by Blackberry and Sailfish to port over an Android compatibility layer, and efforts by Firefox and Tizen to build HTML-based systems lead me to believe eventually we will reach certain platform standardization. This will be critical to allow developers to spread apps as far and wide as possible and ensure consumers have access to the best software, no matter the OS.