Today is not Saint Jude’s day. I looked it up. On Wikipedia. St. Jude’s Day is October 28.
After a few days away from my computer, I needed to check. For some reason my RSS reader (yes, I still rely on RSS) was filled with stories about all the mobile operating systems (OS) that are still out there – Tizen, Jolla, Ubuntu and all the rest.
There was not a lot of real news, but for some reason these OS are once again appearing on my Internet radar. I suspect that the marketing and PR departments are gearing up for Mobile World Congress, and there will probably be a fair amount of news, or at least press releases, coming out in the next few weeks.
Let’s start with Tizen. Tizen is now part of the Linux Foundation, but it is really being championed by Samsung, and to a lesser degree Intel. The Wall Street Journal recently published a good overview and a slightly less upbeat outlook on the OS. Tizen was once known as Meego, and before that it was known as Maemo and as Moblin. It was going to be Nokia’s internally-developed smartphone OS, but was abandoned when Nokia went with Windows Phone. Samsung has picked it up now, but their intentions are unclear. Last week, the big news was that Samsung had signed a bunch of patent licensing agreements notably with Google. As part of this, Samsung apparently agreed to give up placing its own user interface (UI) on top of main branch Android. This would seemingly signal a closer relationship between Google and Samsung. So the recent rumbling of news about Tizen stands out. There are a few ways to read that fact pattern, but the real proof will come in Barcelona. How many Tizen phones will be announced and how much floor space will they get in Samsung’s booth. Those are not guaranteed signals, but they are reasonable proxies.
The next news concerns Jolla’s Sailfish. Jolla is the original Nokia team that was working on MeeGo and lost their project when Nokia adopted Windows Phone. From what I can tell, the Jolla team is pretty strong. They have a lot of smart people with deep technical skills. The problem is that they are struggling to find hardware partners and distribution. They have released a phone, and have demonstrated phones built for Android running Sailfish. I cannot say that I think Sailfish has a solid looking future, nor will I write them off entirely. I would not be surprised if they announce some new hardware partners and maybe a carrier deal at Mobile World Congress. Long odds, but not impossible.
I am slightly less upbeat about the prospects for Canoncial’s Ubuntu Phone. The makers of one of the leading desktop implementations for Linux, Canonical threw their hat in the ring at Mobile World Congress last year. At the time, I regarded their effort as little more than a science project. Time seems to have borne that out. A few weeks back they announced that there would unlikely be any Ubuntu Phone before 2015. Here again, the problem was finding hardware partners. Not just someone to build the phone, but my guess is Ubuntu struggled most in finding silicon vendors who would support them. As skeptical as I am about its prospects, I admit that I was saddened by the latest Ubuntu Phone news. I think they came up with a really novel approach, and in this sea of look-alike phones, I was encouraged to see something that really looked different.
The other new entry comes from China. The China Operating System developed by Shanghai Liantong and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is a State-backed alternative OS for mobile phones. I will refrain from commenting on the politics that may rest behind this, but the new OS has some serious backing from the Chinese government and carriers. That may give it some momentum, but a note of caution. First, designing an OS is just part of the work, there is also a lot of effort needed to build up the app ecosystem to go with it. This is more than just the technical ability to execute code on a phone, it is a sales and marketing effort to get developers to come along. China Mobile tried this approach a few years ago with OPhone, their own fork of Android, and stumbled on all of these problems.
The one OS that has not been in the news much lately is probably the best positioned – Mozilla’s Firefox Phone. They have had some success in signing up carriers and hardware partners. At MWC last year they announced nearly a dozen OEMs, and some of those have begun building Firefox devices. This is probably the one to watch most closely in Barcelona later this month.
Perhaps the saddest OS news of the week was the sale of Palm’s patent portfolio to Qualcomm. I have no idea what is in those patents, or what Qualcomm wants them for. I only raise it as a cautionary tale of what can happen to even the best operating systems.
So all this leaves the big question. Is there room in the ecosystem for another OS? The common wisdom holds that there is not. Android and iOS have somehow ‘won’.
I am not entirely convinced, largely but not entirely. As I have noted in the past (again and again), Android is not entirely stable. Fragmentation remains an issue, at least in the sense that there are so many competing versions (by carrier and by OEM) out there. China has a half dozen re-skinned Android versions, and Google apparently has little interest or ability to change this. For their part, consumers seem largely indifferent. My guess is that consumers do not fully know what ‘Android’ is, and there are some clear signs that much of the growth in Android in many markets happens because Android is the default “not-iPhone” phone available. All that leaves a lot of room for someone else to step in and grab a toehold. The fact that after years and billions of dollars of trying, no one has succeeded in doing that speaks to the difficulty of any such undertaking.
I will just add that looking for anyone to grab a big share from Android is not the right metric to use. Big OEMs or platforms can buy some share for a short time. And some of the smaller ventures may get a lucky break. But we are approaching, if not past, a billion units of Android installed base. Nothing will change that quickly. Instead, I think the next goal post for many of these alternative OS is just a stable following. Find a niche and build some strong loyalty. There are a lot of ways to do this – geographic, demographic, linguistic, some specialty application, etc. Instead of emulating Apple in 2007, or Android in 2010, try to emulate Apple in 1984. I am not sure that is possible anymore, but it may be the only path left.