Does the world need more open-source operating systems for mobile devices? More app stores and entire ecosystems? We're about to find out.
Consider the mobile OS landscape -- fragmented but with strong elements of monoculture, with two dominant players and a newcomer spending serious money to capture third place, and an open-source dark horse. Well, it's going to get even more crowded and confusing in 2013.
Last week Canonical announced Ubuntu for Phones, a platform aimed at carriers and OEMs, with phones appearing on the market possibly in late 2013. And Samsung announced that it will introduce new phones in 2013 based on the Tizen OS -- the descendent of LiMo that has the support of Intel and, reportedly, of Japan's NTT Docomo.
Canonical has taken a different approach than Google, Apple, or Microsoft to the problem of operating on multiple devices and screen sizes. Android was designed for phones and had to be tweaked pretty radically to work on tablets; it has no story on the desktop. Apple uses separate but related OSs for mobile and desktop. Microsoft uses several closely related OSs and tries to force a touch interface across all devices, even the desktop. Ubuntu's idea is to run the identical OS on all computing platforms, but to use a touch-friendly UI only on mobile devices. Canonical's founder Mark Shuttleworth goes over the UI in this video, from about 06:30 to 13:40.
Shuttleworth claims that HTML5 apps are fully first-class citizens in the Ubuntu world. Native apps are written without "the overhead of Java," in Shuttleworth's backhand slap at Android. Interested developers can get on board here.
Canonical's problem is going to be getting carriers signed up. No carrier stood up with Shuttleworth at the announcement.
This new open-source OS is to be Samsung's way of avoiding getting too dependent on Android. Samsung is the largest mobile manufacturer of mobile phones in the world, and is said to be the only one eking a profit out of the Android market. Samsung began exploring its OS options last spring when Google purchased rival handset maker Motorola.
I haven't seen any real details as to what the UI or the development environment on a Tizen phone would be like.
In addition to the high-profile announcements from Canonical and Samsung, two other open-source mobile phone OS efforts are bubbling along, mostly unnoticed. Former Nokia engineers are working on a MeeGo derivative called Sailfish, and another group is trying to revive HP's cast-off WebOS into a smartphone offering by 2016.
Who needs 'em?
Some observers hold the opinion that all these new entrants really have no place in the mobile marketplace. I believe that the market will sort them all out in short order. I will be very surprised to see Ubuntu for Phones pick up any significant carrier endorsements. Samsung's Tizen phones may eventually get to near the 4 percent its current Bada OS enjoys in a few markets, but I can't see a robust ecosystem of apps and developers developing around it. Firefox OS may do modestly well in the developing world. The others will be fun projects for a few developers for some time to come.