New smartphone OS flags will fly at Mobile World Congress

New phones based on Firefox OS and Ubuntu will be on display in Barcelona

The newer smartphone OS entrants competing to chip away at the dominance of Android and iOS are heading to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress, and facing a landscape that has changed since last year's show.

Mozilla, Canonical and Jolla are still aimed squarely at Android, but Tizen, backed by Intel and Samsung, faces a more uncertain future, according to analysts.

Last year, phones were shown running all four OSes. Since then, the first phones running Firefox OS and Sailfish from Finnish company Jolla have gone on sale, while Canonical and the Tizen camp have suffered from delays.

Mozilla's Firefox OS has been the most successful, but only about 390,000 Firefox OS phones shipped last year, according to IDC, which expects that figure to rise to 2.5 million this year. That will give Firefox OS a 0.2 percent share of the total smartphone market, IDC said.

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For Firefox OS to become a serious contender, it needs more brand awareness, backing from more operators as well as products with improved hardware and software, which is something Mozilla could have in store for an event on Sunday. ZTE has also said it will launch a Firefox OS smartphone, the Open C, at this year's show.

"I believe Firefox could have a chance, because Mozilla has been consistent in its strategy to develop products for the entry-level segment where there are still opportunities. It isn't as crowded as the high-end," said Malik Saadi, practice director at ABI Research.

The Tizen OS, on the other hand, hasn't made much progress since last year, with operators Orange and NTT DoCoMo backing away. While Tizen is working very well technically on commercial-grade smartphones, the surrounding ecosystem of apps and services isn't strong enough for Orange to put out a device, a spokesman said via email earlier this month.

Samsung didn't want to comment on whether it will have a Tizen-based smartphone on display at Mobile World Congress.

"It seems like there has been a warming of the relationship between Google and Samsung with Google's plan to divest the Motorola handset business and the recent patent agreement. So I think Tizen is going to have a difficult show with regards to moving the platform forward," said Ben Wood, director of research at CCS Insight.

A recent rumor is that Samsung plans to use Tizen on a future Galaxy Gear smartwatch. That may make more sense than using the platform on smartphones, because the competition isn't as fierce and the platform's reliance on HTML5 would be less of an issue with fewer and less advanced apps running on smartwatches.

"It would be an interesting way for Samsung to keep Tizen alive. Android is incredibly hungry in terms of memory footprint and battery consumption. Therefore a more efficient OS might appeal to vendors because they can reduce the bill of materials and address one of the big shortcomings of wearables right now, which is battery life," Wood said.

This week Canonical's Ubuntu and Sailfish, both newcomers in the smartphone OS race, took a couple of steps forward. Jolla said the first version of its OS is ready and Canonical announced that Spanish company BQ and Meizu from China will finally launch the first smartphones running Ubuntu this year.

Canonical's goal is to make Ubuntu the third largest OS, passing Windows Phone and BlackBerry on the way, founder Mark Shuttleworth said on Wednesday. For that to happen, Canonical and its partners would have to ship about 9 million units per quarter, and if Windows Phone continues to grow at the same rate, about 13 million in the fourth quarter next year.

Early versions of products from BQ and Meizu will be on display at Mobile World Congress.

While fans of Ubuntu will have to wait a bit longer for a smartphone running the OS, Jolla started selling the first smartphone based on Sailfish last year. The devices came with a beta version of the OS that on Friday graduated to full commercial availability.

Jolla believes it now offers a truly viable option for all smartphone users, according to co-founder and chief operating officer Marc Dillon. The company will continue to provide monthly software updates to further improve performance, he said.

On Friday, the company also announced partnerships with game developer Rovio and security vendor F-Secure. Rovio is developing an Angry Birds smart cover with exclusive content, but exactly what that entails won't be announced until the second quarter. The deal with F-Secure will give users integrated access to the hosted storage service Younited, which the security company pitches as a safer alternative to Dropbox and Microsoft's OneDrive.

Jolla's smartphone is available for order online for a!399 (US$550) including VAT for shipments to all European Union countries, Switzerland and Norway. The company is hoping to put it on sale in Russia, India and Hong Kong soon. In the near future it will be possible to install Sailfish on devices that now run Android, as well, according to Jolla.

The advantage Canonical and Jolla have is that they are small companies with low operating expenses that unlike giants such as Samsung and Apple doesn't have to sell tens of millions of units to make a profit.

"This is a market with over 1 billion units shipped last year and for them to sell a few million units per quarter, particularly for a company like Jolla, would be a roaring success. But I don't think any of them are in any position to be the next big OS," Wood said.

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