Four new challengers appear

The next generation of mobile operating systems

Elliot Bentley

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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