The 8 mobile OS upstarts that want to topple iOS and Android

Ubuntu, Firefox, Tizen, Sailfish, WebOS, Nokia Series 40, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone want a piece of the pie, but it won't be a cakewalk

People love choice -- or so they say. In reality, we tend to gravitate to just a few choices, especially when it comes to core technology. When you have a couple of dominant platforms, you end up getting more options for the platform you choose. Cases in point: Windows or OS X. SAP or Oracle or Infor. Windows Server or Linux. Microsoft Office or iWork or LibreOffice. Amazon.com or eBay. Hewlett-Packard or Dell or Lenovo. iOS or Android.

Typically, you get lots of choice where it doesn't matter in terms of integration with a core platform, such as for generic tech: hard drives, monitors, TVs, automobiles, toasters and other kitchen appliances, and so on.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Four new mobile OSes -- caught on tape! | InfoWorld rates the iPad Mini, Kindle Fire, and Nexus 7 as media tablets -- see which one prevails. | Read InfoWorld's comparison of mobile security capabilities in iOS, Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Phone. ]

Android is the strong No. 1 and iOS the strong No. 2 for consumer, their positions reversed for enterprise. With iOS and Android dominating the mobile ecosystem so thoroughly, the other eight -- yes, eight -- wannabe players are seeking ways to stand out. Most are targeting what they hope are niches that iOS and Android won't take over, though a couple still have dreams of displacing Android or iOS, or at least becoming a significant No. 3.

Realistic? No -- most will fail, though we won't know which for a while. In the meantime, here's who else is vying for your attention as a user or developer and how they hope to convince you they're worth adopting.

Simple smartphones have three niches they hope to thrive in
For some reason, 2013 is the year of the simple smartphone: Mozilla has Firefox OS, Canonical has Ubuntu Touch, tiny Jolla has Sailfish, and Samsung is working on Tizen to replace its tepidly received Bada OS. Nokia got into the simple smartphone game early in fall 2011 with its Series 40-powered Asha devices. There are two threads common to these wannabe OSes:

  • They're targeted at poorer regions of the world where price sensitivity creates a perceived opening for alternatives to iOS and Android.
  • A related goal is simplicity, for users who find iPhones and Android devices too complex, no matter what part of the world they live in.

Finally, there's also a political basis for two of the new mobile OSes (Firefox OS and Ubuntu Touch): to have an "open" alternative to the "closed" OSes like iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Series 40, and BlackBerry.

The poor angle. The logic here is that the lightweight environment won't need the kind of hardware found in iPhones, Android devices, and BlackBerrys, making them more affordable to the developing world, where the smartphone revolution hasn't yet taken hold. That bet on low prices for poorer countries is iffy. Nokia's Asha series of smartphones has been on the market for about 16 months, with solid sales of 9 million units in the fourth quarter of 2012. But that's just 2 percent of global mobile phone sales, based on Gartner's stats. That's not an encouraging portion if you believe that the world's 5 billion poor people are ready for smartphones if only they were cheap enough.

What's selling best in the poorer regions is what's selling well in the richer regions: Android. Chinese, Indian, Korean, and other manufacturers have cheap if underpowered Android smartphones for price-conscious regions, plus a path to better devices on the same platform. People can start and stay in the Android world, retaining their investments.

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