Opinion: Do we really need more mobile operating systems?

Ubuntu OS is due to be workable by the end of the month. Firefox OS is chasing fast behind it. In a smartphone world dominated by Apple and Android, with Blackberry and Windows Phone nipping at their heels, is there really space for other contenders, and do they really matter?
The tl;dr version for those with low attention spans: Probably not, and yes.
But hopefully that will have got your attention, at the very least. If you’re in the market for a new mobile device, be it a tablet or a smartphone, I’d still strongly advise you look at the incumbents first; iOS, Android, Windows. The order of preference you give those is up to you and dependent on your needs.
Still, more options for mobiles are emerging. Ausdroid reports on the imminent launch of Ubuntu Touch, due to be “workable”, according to developer Rick Spencer, by the end of May. By useable, he means

You can make and receive phone calls
You can make and receive sms messages
You can browse the web on 3g data
You can browse the web on wifi
You can switch between wifi and 3g data
The proximity sensor dims the screen when you lift the phone to talk on it
You can import contacts from somewhere, and you can add and edit contacts
When you update your phone your user data is retained, even if updating with phablet-flash

Then there’s Firefox OS. Mozilla’s been busy courting developers for its own low cost phone initiative. At one point it looked as though we may see them through Telstra, bringing yet another challenger to the mobile smartphone space.
So do either stand the proverbial snowball’s chance of gaining Australian market traction? Frankly, I’ve got to say that I doubt it. There’s already heavily established user bases for the predominant smartphone platforms, and, as yet, there’s not so much tied into these new platforms that shows a real point of difference that’s likely to significantly sway the mass market.
Consumers — especially mass market tech consumers — are pretty reluctant to adopt change, and indeed are often a little belligerent when it’s foisted on them. Windows 8’s touch interface has been rather controversial, because it changed the Windows experience so many were used to. Whenever Facebook unveils a new look, there’s a steady outcry to go back “to the old one”, although after around six months I reckon if you put the old Facebook up, users would complain just as long and just as loud that the new features were “missing”. As such, any new smartphone platform has its work cut out for it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, and it’s not as though I’m claiming mystic powers of prediction. Still, within the Australian context I can’t see Ubuntu-based phones or Firefox OS ones taking a significant share.
The thing is, though, that doesn’t really matter, but the operating systems underneath them do.
In the case of Ubuntu OS, it’s a pure hacker project, and one that could reap rewards much further down the track. It’s not necessarily about whether in six months time we’ll all be running Ubuntu phones. Frankly, right now, it’s for the tech enthusiast space, and those who’d be willing to put up with a lot of potential instability and revisions as they go. If you’re in that space, it’s an interesting effort that might not become dominant, but gives you further flexibility with the hardware you already own.
That’s the importance here; I’m firmly of the belief that once you hand over the money for the hardware, it’s yours. That doesn’t mean you can reflash it, brick it and expect Google (or Apple, or Blackberry, or Microsoft) to replace or repair it, but, in accepting risks, you can do what you like with it. Use it as a remote desktop, use it to develop other Linux applications, heck, even use it as a toothbrush.
Hang on, no. Not that last one. My dentist told me not to.
In the case of Firefox OS and its open source underpinnings, it’s the same case, but it’s also one that’s not precisely pitched at the Australian market in any case. Firefox OS phones are meant to be uber-cheap phone options, and while that could have some traction in, say, supermarkets, where I constantly see cheap Huawei phones for sale at the registers, it’s more about capturing market share in markets that are still evolving into the smartphone space. Here in Australia we’re already there, but there are plenty of places where that’s not true.
Technology innovation is all about taking risks. It could well be that neither platform is around in any real way in twelve months time. Remember WebOS? Yeah…
But equally, it could be that small innovations, on the edge, where users are a little more willing to put up with the weird and wacky (and sometimes unstable) could bear rich fruit, while not aggravating the main consumer core that finds itself far more resistant to that kind of change.

3 thoughts on “Opinion: Do we really need more mobile operating systems?”

  1. What I want and yes, I’m being serious here, is a device indepenent OS that is basically the same as a Jailbroken iOS.. maybe they could call it jOS? All the goodness of iOS without all the restrictive, nanny-state nonsense plus the power of Cydia apps.. sounds too good to be true..

  2. Jonathan Maddox

    Don’t knock the cheap Huawei. After (slowly, duh) realising that my Kogan phone wasn’t quite the bargain it could have been, I accepted a nearly-new hand-me-down Huawei from a relative (which the relative had bought for $40 at Coles, Telstra prepaid). It’s nothing special but it rocks. And I’m not locked into Telstra prices either — the Kogan sim works perfectly.

  3. The cheap Huawei absolutely has its place — the point, in fact that I’m trying to make is that we’ve already got filled niches of bargain phones, so another phone there won’t make a difference, whereas in areas where the phone ecology is less evolved, there’s a market opportunity.

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