It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago that Android muscled its way onto iOS’s podium. In fact, it was only a little over six years ago, in 2008, that iOS shuffled into Palm and Windows Mobile’s scene. The first commercial version of Android came out that same year.
Palm OS, and Windows CE, came out in 1996, if you can remember that far back.
Well, over the years, we haven’t seen all that much in the way of competition to the big three: Android, iOS, and Windows.
But that might be changing, due in part to escalating development, and now hardware releases, of a few open-source whippersnappers. Plus, our UX requirements are changing and the incumbents may not be keeping up.
Sailfish, Firefox OS, and Tizen are very real alternatives, with varying prospects, that are snapping at the heels of the big three.
And if you think mobile operating systems are fragmented right now, It’s going to get worse.
Here’s a look at three of the key players, all with operating systems that are bubbling up on actual, real hardware.
The Finnish Sailfish OS differentiates itself from the incumbents with what it calls "Live Multitasking." All of the running apps are shown on one screen—a bit like existing widgets. The idea is that you don’t have to open and close apps, and that all of the apps are available simultaneously.
Its gesture-based swiping and pulling are simplified. Key swipes include getting back to home by swiping from either side of the screen. Swiping from top to bottom closes the app. Pulls release and select actions.
The OS is compatible with Android apps through built-in run-time functionality. HTML5 is also supported.
Firefox OS’s differentiator is what it calls "Adaptive Search." The idea is that you can enter one word as a search term to discover appropriate apps. It uses the example: "The Beatles." Entering that term provides apps like YouTube, which deliver the artist’s music and video. Tapping an icon then places that app on the home screen.
But the hidden Firefox OS killer feature is its HTML5 integration. Everything on the device runs in HTML5, an open web standard. This should, in theory, mean that apps are easy to port over from other mobile operating systems and the desktop.
HTML5 includes better multimedia inclusion and page scalability than earlier versions of HTML. The page scalability means websites developed in HTML5, say, for the desktop, should easily translate to Firefox OS and vice versa, thus cutting app development costs.
Unlike incumbents historically, Firefox OS is highly price-sensitive from launch. Phone maker ZTE’s Open smartphone -- geared towards developing countries -- is one of the first to use Firefox OS. You can pick one up for about $60 on Amazon.
The Linux Foundation’s Tizen pitches itself as an open-source OS for anything device-oriented.
In other words, its OS is geared towards mobile, like smartphones and tablets; wearable tech, such as smartwatches; in-vehicle applications, like entertainment; netbooks and television.
So far, in-vehicle, and to a certain extent TV, has been a total shambles when it comes to overall smartphone integration. So there’s room for a player that can tie it all together in that arena, which Tizen promises it can do.
Samsung has recently launched a hand-gesture-driven Tizen-based TV SDK, running on HTML5. Samsung is a major proponent of Tizen and has already released smartwatches using the OS. A smartphone has been delayed.
Pundits say Samsung’s interest in Tizen is an attempt to reduce its reliance on Android. You can purchase a Tizen-powered smartwatch, on Samsung’s website, for $199.
Compatibility, like that featured by Tizen, is an area in which the newer OSes could excel.
One reason cross-device compatibility hasn’t worked seamlessly in the past has been partly due to screen resolution issues. HTML5 fixes that.
You could also argue that another reason we haven’t seen much cross-device compatibility is because of competitive human nature, and general fragmentation, within consumer electronics organizations—the TV department isn't talking to the tablet department, for example.
Worse, though, is fragmentation through verticals—auto makers, for years, clearly haven’t been talking to smartphone makers.
In that particular case, things are changing.
But, let’s see if Tizen and its open source ilk can fix that type of problem. It’ll take something revolutionary, yet possibly simple, like that to depose the walled-garden incumbents.
Add to the whole shebang that new user interaction requirements have come into play since iOS and Android’s birth: Samsung used Tizen to get a smartwatch to talk to its TV. It didn’t use Android in that case.
Android, iOS and Windows - watch out. It might not take much.
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