The smartphone operating system market is dominated by Android and iOS, but you can never count out Microsoft, so let’s say that Windows Phone, despite lagging in market share, rounds out the Big Three.
(According to the latest numbers from IDC, Android’s global market share in the second quarter of 2014 was 85%, following by iOS at 12% and Windows at 2.5%.)
That leaves four other smartphone operating systems fighting for survival. The odds that any of them will threaten the market leaders are pretty slim, but the companies behind them are pressing on. They may be looking to gain a foothold selling cheap smartphones in so-called emerging markets; hedging against the control that Apple, Google and Microsoft are wielding; or simply figuring that they have nothing left to lose.
Here’s what the other four smartphone OSs have been up to lately and what their strategies for survival are.
1. BlackBerry: Cool to be square
BlackBerry OS is now in an epic struggle against Windows Phone for third place when it comes to U.S. market share, but, of course, BlackBerry has been on a long, downward slide. In 2009, Blackberry’s market share was north of 50%.
The BlackBerry company has refocused on selling their devices and services to their traditional business and government clientele, including launching an enterprise-secure messenger, BBM Protected, for the BlackBerry OS.
In June, BlackBerry announced that the Amazon Appstore would be included with BlackBerry 10.3 when the OS is released this fall. (BlackBerry 10 can already run most Android apps.) The company’s own app store, BlackBerry World, will remain active but has stopped selling movie, music and TV downloads.
As for hardware, an entry-level smartphone, the Z3, was released in late June (first in India and Indonesia). The BlackBerry Classic (coming possibly in November) will be an update of the familiar BlackBerry phone with a built-in physical keypad, while the BlackBerry Passport (September) -- which will also have a physical keypad -- will have a much larger and oddly square-shaped form factor.
In June, the company reported a profit in its first fiscal quarter, which is good news. The not-so-good news: Sales numbers of BlackBerry devices fell, which could lead to further eroding of BlackBerry OS’ market share. At this point, the Passport’s unique looks might help the OS itself stand out.
2. Firefox OS: Not available in the U.S. (except on eBay)
Firefox OS is an open-source mobile OS. It works similarly to the Android version of the Firefox browser; its apps are basically web apps. The first Firefox phone sold to the general public (as opposed to just developers), the Open, was launched last July. It remains only available in the U.S. on eBay. According to its maker, ZTE, the phone has sold more than 100,000 units worldwide, but several user reviews pointed to a buggy device prone to crashing.
Mozilla announced on June 10 the launch of a Firefox phone that might cost only $25. We’re nonplussed: The true expense of a phone lies in its hardware, not operating system. Obviously, to achieve this low price, the phone will have fewer features and with less performance power compared to most entry-level smartphones nowadays. And the plan is to sell this cheap phone in India and Indonesia first. (Prior Firefox phones have been available in Europe and Latin America.)
As for the U.S., Mozilla admitted last November the region is not their main focus for selling Firefox phones. Meanwhile, ZTE’s Open was followed by the Open C, which was released in May and is also only sold on eBay.
3. Tizen: Don’t go Russian out to buy one
Like Firefox OS, this mobile OS is open-source, but has had a long and convoluted history. All you need to know is its lineage is traced back to four separate OSs supported by multiple companies, but they eventually converged under the new name Tizen. Today, Intel and Samsung are its main backers. Samsung is using Tizen for its smart TVs and smartwatches. In fact, the Galaxy Gear smartwatch, which originally came with Android, had a software update issued at the end of May which entirely replaces this OS with Tizen.
Samsung also announced on June 3 the Samsung Z, their first smartphone to run Tizen. The company plans to release it during the third quarter of this year -- but first in Russia.
It’s unlikely the company will ditch Android anytime soon from its future mobile devices, though. It is pretty much the top Android device seller in the world. The company will still sell smartwatches that use the new version of Android designed for wearable devices, Android Wear.
To be frank, it looks like a big reason why Samsung is developing and improving Tizen is so they can use it as leverage against Google when negotiating business matters over the Android platform.
4. Ubuntu Touch: Crowdfunding flop takes the Edge off
Last July, Canonical tried crowdfunding for the Ubuntu Edge, a smartphone that could also be used as a desktop PC when docked. They asked the public to pledge $32 million to put it into production, but raised only $12.8 million. It was speculated that the whole effort had really been a publicity stunt to draw attention to Canonical’s general goal to bring their Ubuntu OS to smartphones and tablets.
Since the Edge’s failure (or PR success), Canonical has managed to get two device companies on board to use the mobile version of their OS, Ubuntu Touch. In February, the company announced partnerships with Chinese phone maker Meizu and a Spanish one, bq; both will release Ubuntu phones for presumably Europe and Asia sometime later this year.
There was apparently some interest in the Edge, which would have had higher-end technical specs, but it’s expected that whatever phones Meizu and bq introduce could be technically mid-range. Like Mozilla, Canonical looks to be facing a formidable challenge getting companies to make smartphones running their OS over Android, even for lower-end models.
If you want to try Ubuntu Touch and own a Nexus 4, you can download and install it on your phone.
Wen is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story, "4 Smartphone OSs Fighting for Survival" was originally published by Network World.