New smartphone OSes bet on Web techs and improved UIs

New operating systems face an uphill battle as they challenge Android and iOS

In the next 12 months, smartphones with five new operating systems are scheduled to go on sale, leaning on Web technologies and improved user interfaces to try and make a dent in the dominance of Apple's iOS and Google's Android.

In two weeks, Research In Motion will launch the first two smartphones based on its new operating system, BlackBerry 10, hoping to turn around its ailing fortunes. Launching a new operating system and succeeding will be difficult, but that hasn't dissuaded RIM nor the other vendors coming out with smartphone OSes: Mozilla, Canonical, Finnish upstart Jolla and backers of Tizen.

"I think it is the natural cycle of how open markets work; a few dominant players will get a grip on an industry and people will decide they have too much power and start looking for alternatives," said Neil Mawston, executive director at Strategy Analytics.

Smartphone vendors and operators should also benefit from having more options.

"From an operator point-of-view it will help, because it will result in more competition. Their difficulty will be to have the right device, the right device brand and retail channel, which makes a big difference," Orange vice president Arnauld Blondet said.

A key part of the new operating systems will be their user interfaces, which don't just aim to replicate the iOS experience, but rather add features to improve usability.

The UIs of the new OSes share some of the same principles, including a greater use of the edges of the screen and a lack of physical buttons.

For example, BlackBerry 10 and Canonical's Ubuntu for phones use similar gestures to reveal more information on the left side of the screen. Ubuntu for phones shows a list of applications, while BlackBerry 10 displays a unified inbox called the Hub. There, users can open, reply to and send Facebook messages without having to open an application.

Another example of this is in Jolla's Sailfish OS, where users can pull down the screen by sliding a finger down to reveal more menu options and information.

"Regardless of whether or not they are successful, I would bet the features we see on these platforms will have an impact on the market and turn up elsewhere," Geoff Blaber, analyst at CCS Insight, said.

Microsoft has already shown there is room for development when it comes to smartphone user interfaces with Windows Phone, but the limited success of the OS has also illustrated the importance of applications.

To make it easier for developers, all five platforms will have extensive support for HTML5. Mozilla has taken this the furthest, as the idea with its Firefox OS is to have all user-accessible software running on the phone be a Web app.

But the others are also taking the technology to heart.

'If you are currently targeting the iPhone and Android with HTML5, it will be easy to add Ubuntu, as well," Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth said in a video introducing his new OS.

But even if HTML5 is making great strides, RIM, Canonical and Jolla all feel there is a need for an alternative native development environment, as well. There is a common denominator here as well: using Qt.

Qt is a cross-platform application and user interface development framework for desktop, embedded and mobile applications that Digia acquired from Nokia last year.

Digia has been in contact with Canonical and Jolla, and has also worked closely with RIM on the BlackBerry 10 launch, according to Katherine Barrios, director of marketing for the Qt unit at Digia.

The use of Qt is a win-win situation; it solidifies Qt as a cross-platform framework, while Canonical and Jolla can take advantage of its more than 500,000 developers as they build their own ecosystems, Barrios said.

"It is definitely the right strategy. They have to minimize the barriers to entry, and that is what they are doing. Qt is established and HTML5 is still nascent, but there is the scope to reuse code from device to device," CCS Insight's Blaber said.

On HTML5, Blaber would like to see especially Mozilla, Canonical and Jolla working together to create as much consistency as possible for developers, he said.

However, regardless of how good the user interfaces are and the availability of applications, success will not come easy.

Ranking their chances, they can be split into two groups, with RIM, Mozilla and Tizen in the first and Canonical along with Jolla in the second, according to Strategy Analytics' Mawston.

Tizen ends up in the first group because it's backed by Samsung Electronics, but that could also turn into a disadvantage if other vendors perceive Samsung controlling it. BlackBerry 10 qualifies because of its known brand and existing global distribution network, while Firefox OS has support from the likes of Telefónica and ZTE, Mawston said.

Firefox OS can deliver a far better experience than Android at price points around US$100, according to the Spanish operator.

For Jolla and Canonical success will be even harder to come by.

"Above all they'll need hardware partners," Mawston said.

Since the newcomers were fairly quiet at CES in Las Vegas, the expectation is that Mobile World Congress will be a coming-out party for a lot of the new platforms, according to Blaber.

But for RIM's employees it's crunch time, and the company is looking forward to showing the world how good BlackBerry 10 is, according to Rob Orr, RIM's managing director for UK and Ireland.

"As you can imagine everyone is buzzing," Orr said via email. "We're working around the clock to ensure that every last box is ticked ready for launch."

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