Thursday, January 10, 2013

Two new smartphone operating systems which are truly different

Android and iOS have hogged the headlines and market share in the mobile space this year. With 1.1 billion smartphone subscribers worldwide by end 2012, and a projected 2 billion users by end 2012, the smartphone sector still offers a lot of potential and promise for other platforms; something Microsoft with Win Phone 8 and RIM with the upcoming launch of BB10, are surely hoping to capitalise on.

But is there space for even more operating systems, or will the market share pie get divided between just three big players, as many analysts have been predicting?

Two interesting contenders have emerged in the smartphone space in end 2012. Neither have launched in the market yet, but both are based on years of development effort. Both are built off the open source Linux platform and therefore enjoy popular support among the geek and tech community. Both are focusing their initial efforts on the emerging Asian smartphone markets. Both promise that they can run on ARM and x86 (Intel) hardware, bridging the divide between PC and smartphone. And both offer features that no other smartphone operating system has been able to deliver to its users.

The two aspirants to enter the smartphone market are Canonical (Ubuntu) and Finland-based Jolla (Sailfish).

Canonical has developed the world's most popular, free-to-use Linux based operating system, Ubuntu. Praised for its simplicity in installation, stability and huge user-based community which contributes to development, support and troubleshooting, Canonical is one of the few open source companies which has managed to cross the chasm between geeks and regular users. Founder Mark Shuttleworth pointed out that the Ubuntu brand has huge recognition in China, where it ships pre-installed on 30% of PCs, and in India, built through partnerships with OEMs like Dell and Lenovo. Not surprisingly, he also considers these emerging smartphone markets as his first target. Enterprise customers (many of whom already use Ubuntu on PCs) are also considered as an important user base for the new smartphone OS.

Ubuntu's compelling proposition is  that it the ability to turn your phone into a computer that can run programs, be programmed by the user, and deliver a true desktop experience on mobile. The Ubuntu Phone page touts the device as a 'superfone that's also a full PC', claiming that 'in every dual core phone, there's a PC trying to get out.' From what the company has shared till date, it appears that a phone running Ubuntu OS can run like a full PC when it is 'docked' with a keyboard, screen and mouse. It can run programs, and replicate the full desktop PC experience.

Ubuntu smartphone OS is built on the Android kernel, offering a unique functionality - the phone will run on Android OS when you use it as a phone and on Ubuntu OS when docked, with perfect integration between the two. It is similar to the dual-boot premise on which Ubuntu or other Linux distros get installed on many Windows PCs.

The first phones with Ubuntu OS installed should enter the market by end 2013.

Jolla's journey to a smartphone OS has been different from Canonical's. The company was founded by ex-Nokia product engineers who worked on the MeeGo OS, a Nokia-Intel open source partnership aimed at developing the operating system of the future. Nokia strategically shifted its bets when it partnered with Microsoft in 2010 and threw in its fortunes with the future of Windows 8 smartphones. The MeeGo team was disbanded and received support from Nokia to start up their own business.

Jolla has worked to evolve MeeGo into its current avtaar, a Linux based, open source platform which promises to be flexible, inovative and offer superior multi-tasking abilities. An additional advantage is that it will support Android apps from the beginning, solving the daunting challenge of building a massive app ecosystem, a problem that even a giant like Microsoft has been struggling with.

Like Canonical, Jolla will target device manufacturers in China first, but the ultimate goal is to build their own smartphone. The company will work closely with device manufacturers who customise the operating system to ensure that updates will be issued in a timely way, avoiding the main issue plaguing the Android ecosystem - fragmentation caused by phone manufacturers who are unable to upgrade handsets even as Google releases several newer versions of Android. A final and functional version of Sailfish should be available for preview sometime in Q1 2013.

Sailfish and Ubuntu are of special relevance to us in India, given that both are targetting the Asian markets rather than the mature US/Europe markets. Well, they are targetting China more than India, but it's just a hop, skip and jump for the handsets to make their way here - there are 150 + Indian companies that import Chinese mobile hardware - feature phones and smartphones. It would be great to have more options (especially among budget and medium priced smartphones) which will offer a smooth, polished and truly differentiated user experience. 

Sources:
CnetMIT Technology ReviewTechCrunch