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Does the world need more mobile OSs?
In trying to name off all the operating systems for mobile devices, it feels a bit like Christmas. It seems as though we’re naming reindeer rather than platforms. As we consider each of them, and then the mobile OS landscape in its entirety, we’re left to wonder if we need all this? More importantly, does this damage or threaten Android in any way? Some old OSs are dying out, and some new ones are scrambling to fill their place. A few of the new crop are interesting and may pose a threat to Android, but that’s nothing new.
We already have a very tight bunch of operating systems for mobile. There is of course Android and iOS, but there is also Blackberry. Windows is finally taking mobile seriously, and Symbian is still out there. That’s five mobile operating systems! We also must wonder if each Android skin is an OS unto itself. There is the Amazon OS, which is technically Android, but severely altered. Do TouchWiz or Sense count as an OS? They have their own spin on Android, and TouchWiz has a lot of functionality that only pertains to Samsung smartphones and tablets.
As an entire new batch of OS contenders are readying themselves for entrance into the market, we wonder: who are they, and what do they have going for them? There are a few real players, and a few pretenders. Some we may never see, and some may rise up to challenge Android.
Sailfish is a very customizable OS that seems to be geared toward helping a manufacturer or vendor build from the ground up. While that sounds a bit scary, as it encourages those who have skins or bloatware for Android to jump ship, there’s not much to be concerned about. Sailfish requires someone to dedicate quite a bit of time and resources into building their own OS. It’s failing where Android succeeds! Android gives the OS away for free, then has a very respectable ecosystem to boot. Sailfish has a website with some slightly pedantic tech-speak that a normal consumer won’t understand, and a vendor with any sense will ignore.
Had Mozilla jumped on this six years ago, we may be called “Firefox Authority”. Firefox and Chrome are very similar in nature, but while Chrome is a service offered by as larger company, Firefox is Mozilla. You have a company with a dedicated idea and focus, but maybe not the muscle to be a big player in the mobile market.
It seems as though Mozilla is missing the point with Firefox OS, but not the mark. Firefox OS promises to allow users “freedom from proprietary mobile platforms”, meaning it doesn’t matter which OS an app is written for, you’ll be able to use it on Firefox OS. Sounds great, right? We, as Android fans, can get our hands on all those cool iOS apps and games we hear so much about! Think again.
Firefox is proposing to run web apps, not necessarily mobile apps. Essentially, Firefox OS is a result of the Boot to Gecko project, or B2G. This takes a slightly modified version of Gecko (which runs Firefox) and utilizes it for the mobile landscape. That means it will essentially use the web as the OS. Think of it like a Chromebook for mobile: just about anything you do on this platform happens in Firefox.
Interesting, but not a winner. This is too far a reach for the average consumer. It will interest some tech geeks looking for something new to feign interest at, but I can’t see this catching on widely. Essentially, it’s like using a Chrome browser, and all those Chrome apps, rather than Android. It just plain doesn’t appeal to me. Mobile apps make web apps optimal for mobile, so in a way… Firefox OS is a step backwards. It’s easier for developers, sure, but consumers will dismiss it. Some mobile apps may be HTML5-friendly, but those require porting. Developers are taxed enough without having to port an app to another platform.
Tizen is a bit of a wild card. It has a ton of muscle behind it in Samsung and Intel, but will be focussed on the Asian market. It has been shown to run Android apps with the help of OpenMobile, so it does what Firefox doesn’t in regard to apps and functionality. Out of the box, Tizen could be running Android apps, giving it an immediate ecosystem.
This bit of info presents a new wrinkle to the open source discussion. OpenMobile is taking something built for Android, and essentially porting it to another device. It seems wrong, but can you steal something that was free to begin with? Android, being open source, asked for this in a way. If it becomes an issue, look to Google to shut it down very quickly.
As a pure OS, Tizen is an Android copycat. It’s open source, developer-driven, and Linux-based. It has its own API and SDK, and can be operated across multiple platforms. Tizen is still in its infancy, so it’s pretty early to tell if it will be a true contender or not. It has some great HTML5 support, much like Firefox OS, so it could be a true cross-platform operating system.
Ubuntu promises an across-the-board feel to all platforms, much like Tizen. The difference is that Ubuntu is established, giving it an important advantage. Many people use and enjoy Ubuntu, and the idea of having the interface and functionality across all their devices may be heaven.
Domestically, we’ve seen this before… in a big way. Ubuntu is essentially trying to accomplish what Windows is, and quite frankly failing at. The problem with Windows isn’t the interface, which is nice, it’s functionality and support. If Ubuntu can solve the interesting little twists and turns we find in Windows, it has a shot.
Ubuntu is also utilizing web apps, much like Firefox. Mobile apps exist because using a web app on a small screen often doesn’t work, so using anything but is a tricky proposition. The web page ends up cluttered on a small screen, essentially limiting its functionality. Again, many mobile apps are written in HTML, but it’s really up to each developer to port it over.
Fragmentation is Android’s very own dirty little F-word. We don’t particularly like saying it, and we don’t like hearing it. It’s offensive, but sometimes necessary. If Android is fragmented when simply considering the iterations that are out there, what happens when we factor in all the skins and altered versions of Android? It’s a total cluster-fragmentation, that’s what.
Each version of Android brings this discussion to the surface, and while it’s getting better as smartphones get more powerful and can handle all the cool new stuff Android is capable of, it still exists. Android has about a 75% market share of the world OSs, and is fragmented pretty thoroughly. Now consider each new OS to that equation, and the market becomes cluttered.
Imagine walking into a mobile carrier store, and seeing the normal 20 or so phones lined up agianst the wall. Right now, we have 3-4 iPhones, 2-3 Windows phones, and 10-12 Android phones. A few dumb phones shoved into the corner to satisfy that market, and maybe a tablet or two. Consider that being 2-3 iPhones, 1-2 Windows phones, 6-8 Android phones, 2-3 Ubuntu phones, 1-2 Tizen devices, maybe a Firefox phone, and 1-2 dumb phones. Not only is that limiting your choices for a great device, it also confuses the landscape.
Manufacturers don’t need this
While Samsung is a clear winner in terms of device sales and popularity, many are struggling in this market. Much has been made of HTC’s failures, and LG wasn’t a major player until the Nexus 4 came. Nokia has hitched its wagon to Windows, but that’s not exclusive or lucrative. Sony is getting serious about mobile, and the variety of new manufacturers with good devices is staggering.
If the OS landscape is fragmented and convoluted, it doesn’t bode well for manufacturers. A single device being made for different OSs is rare, as they often have to be rebadged or altered slightly to avoid confusion or functionality. With carriers always wanting exclusives being factored in, the manufacturers have a near impossible job of keeping up as it stands today. Throw in the wrench of different OSs, and their workload just grew while profits stagnated or even dipped.
Take HTC, which has enough trouble selling devices for Android. HTC makes stellar devices, but it spreads itself too thin. On top of multiple devices per carrier, it has also involved itself in Windows. It would be ideal for HTC to have the ability to take a device like the One S and simply “port” it to different OSs, but that’s just not what people want. People want the coolest device available on their carrier, with their OS. Sure, some OSs need different functionality and thus different specs, but not with today’s phones. This is about exclusivity, and it hurts manufacturers.
The golden age
For all of you Android fans out there, you’re smack dab in the middle of the golden age. Android is afforded every luxury there is, from an open source platform widely adopted by developers to a line of devices that pace the market. Google even has its own manufacturer now, which really solidifies the future. Android, it seems, is an unstoppable force.
We once assumed the same of Apple in the mobile space we occupy, but Android doesn’t have the same issues. Android started where Apple was lacking, and built from there. Android is now a leader, where once they were dismissed as a passing interest for Google. We’re wise to keep this in mind, as a lesson can be learned when these new OSs come to pass. Will they be able to beat Android at its own game, a game that now defines the industry?
The deciding factor
If you think of all the new OS contenders entering the ring, you’ll notice a lot of similarities. The same tools across all platforms, utilizing web apps and HTML5. A different and “better” API, an open source environment. Scary, right? Sounds so much like Android it’s frightening. If we think of these attributes, we wonder what stops them from toppling the mighty green robot.
Functionality is great, but to what end? Android and iOS are great not because of their interface or cross platform presence, but because of their ecosystem. If I get a Firefox phone, and want to play my new favorite game Dark Meadow, then what? If developers don’t have the time or desire to port their HTML5 apps to a new platform, we’re just out of luck. The OpenMobile function on Tizen is promising, but could raise the ire of Google.
Do you have anything to worry about? Only if you switch. We waited a long time to get where we are with Android. We went wanting for quite some time to get to this point, and there is no reason to start all over again. Don’t like your interface? Root and flash a new ROM. There is no need to switch to an entirely new OS. Android offers more than all of these new contenders could muster collectively, and there is no reason to believe a few pebbles in the road will cause the steamroller to go off track.