Explosion of new phone platforms coming

19 Feb 2013

Over the next couple of weeks, three new mobile phone platforms will be launched for developers and early adopters.

The Ubuntu Phone, Firefox OS and Tizen will soon give the industry a breath of fresh air away from the Apple iOS, Android and Windows Phone status quo.

Why does the industry need something given that Android is free?

Well, Google may not be charging for Android, but Android is hardly free. Manufacturers can only make so many phones before Microsoft’s lawyers start knocking on the door demanding royalty payments for patents Android allegedly infringes.

Back in 2011, it was reported that Microsoft made five times more money from Android licensing than it did from Windows and that was when only HTC was paying after settling a patent lawsuit. Patent royalties are reported to be between $7.50 and $12.50 per Android handset, not too far off the $23-$30 for a Windows Phone licence.

Apart from the Microsoft tax, there is the chance of all-out patent war from Apple, though that threat has been somewhat lessened as of late.

Samsung had invested a lot in its own Bada OS for lower end phones, but more recently it has adopted the orphaned Tizen OS. Tizen used to be called Maemo, the son of Nokia’s Meego and Intel’s Moblin castaways.

Maemo was used in a series of Nokia tablets and phones - the last of which was the N9 - while Meego was seen, but never offered in retail, in LG’s Intel Atom powered GW990.

Samsung is now a major backer of the Tizen platform, donating Bada code and IP. Version 2.0 has just been released to developers.

Canonical is releasing the Ubuntu phone OS later this week for developers. The OS is designed to replace Android on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and the LG Nexus 4.

One wonders how much of a unified platform Canonical can make of Ubuntu on the desktop, tablet (it has been working on a touch UI for Ubuntu for many months with the Nexus 7 as the main development platform) and now phone. Can a program work across three user interfaces? Not technically, but from a usability and productivity point of view?

Listening to Mark Shuttleworth’s pitch to handset developers, he said that drivers that work for Android will work for Ubuntu phone, thus minimising software development costs. The question that follows then, is Ubuntu phone just a heavily skinned (or de-skinned) Android at its heart? If so, will it be free from Microsoft and Oracle patent lawyers? We will know soon after it is released into the public.

Then there is the Firefox phone with a slew of development phones due this month - the Geeksphone Peek and Keon plus another from ZTE. The Firefox phone’s promise sounds not dissimilar to that of the now defunct Palm Pre WebOS in making web apps and powering everything though HTML 5. Only, instead of Webkit we now have Mozilla’s Gecko.

In a way, the Firefox phone might be the most original of them all. Chrome and Apple’s Safari are both based on Webkit, as is even Maemo’s Dolphin browser. Therefore in terms of breaking a code monoculture, the Firefox phone should be refreshingly different when it is released.

The naysayers say that all of this is futile, that nobody can beat Apple and Google’s stranglehold on the industry and their rich app ecosystems. What most of the alternatives have in common is a de-emphasis of the individual app and a re-focusing on the web as the app, reversing this trend of the applification of the Internet we have seen in recent years.

The other big reason that one of these three might make it big is the potential billions of users at the bottom of the pyramid. When devices become very cheap, such as the 1-GHz ZTE 880 Android which is being offered at under $100, suddenly software licensing costs and patent fees become prohibitively expensive in context.

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