Four new challengers appear

The next generation of mobile operating systems

Elliot Bentley
smartphones-teaser

We profile the upstarts taking on iOS and Android — and, more importantly, how to start developing apps for them now.

The smartphone market, opened up by Apple’s iPhone in 2007, is
dominated by two goliath operating systems: iOS and Android. Even
Microsoft has struggled to crack the market: two years after its
big relaunch, Windows Phone still hasn’t even captured above
4% of the
market
.

Why is this bad? Because, as we all know from Windows and Internet
Explorer’s dominance, a lack of competition leads to stagnation and
a lack of choice for consumers. However, there is hope on the
horizon: Firefox OS, BlackBerry 10, Ubuntu for phones and Sailfish
OS could blow the market wide open and score a triumph for open
source software.

Perhaps in order to boost the number of “apps” on their platforms,
there’s a clear HTML5 theme running through development of
third-party software on these operating systems. While most still
support “native” software (often utilising the open source Qt library), all support “web apps” –
and thanks to PhoneGap and other
similar projects, these web apps can be ported to iOS and Android
with minimum fuss, too.

Firefox OS

We’ve already
covered Firefox OS
in some depth, but in case you’ve been
living under a rock for the past few months, here’s a quick
overview: Firefox OS is a mobile operating system that runs nothing
but HTML5 (even the lock and home screens are coded this way),
designed to run on lower-end devices in emerging markets.

A
JavaScript-based API
will allow for use of hardware features
such as the camera, vibration motors and making phone calls. Apps
don’t even need formal submission to the Firefox Marketplace, but
can simply have a JSON-based
manifest file
and an install
button
. The first developer phones have
been announced
, albeit without a release date.

BlackBerry 10

Despite being an industry punchline for years, BlackBerry’s new
touchscreen operating system has been receiving
positive reviews
and are
selling moderately well
. Desperate for apps, the company has

guaranteed
that if “quality certified” apps fail to make
$10,000 in their first year on sale, BlackBerry will make up the
rest.

Thankfully, the company have done more to attract developers than
just throw money at the problem, opening the platform up to
HTML5,
Java 7.1
(including an Eclipse plug-in) and even ports of Android
apps
. BlackBerry is still a big consumer brand, so it’s always
possible that with a fancy new operating system it can recover to
become a viable third platform.

Ubuntu for phones

The popular Linux distribution unexpectedly announced a
move into the mobile arena
two days into 2013. Expected to be
released in October, Ubuntu for phones marks itself out from other
mobile OSs by allowing a keyboard and monitor to be plugged in for
use as a full-size desktop computer.

Apps can be developed using QML or HTML5, and the developer
centre
has a quickstart guide for writing your first native
app. While web app documentation is still thin on the group, they
are said to be “first class citizens” on Ubuntu for phones, running
independently of the browser with “access to system services”.

Sailfish OS

Sailfish OS

Even further off than Ubuntu for phones is Sailfish OS, a
resurrection of Nokia’s ill-fated MeeGo system. There’s nothing
resembling a public release date yet, and even the project’s wiki
admits that “it’s early days for building applications on Sailfish
OS”, but like Ubuntu for phones will allow apps to be developed
using HTML5, QML and Qt. With offices based out of Finland and Hong
Kong, it’s always possible that Sailfish OS might take off in the
gigantic Chinese market.

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