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

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CEO Marc Dillon says he's aiming for sales of a few million units -- profitable enough for Jolla. But that means a smartphone with no chance of apps beyond the basics created by Jolla. In other words, it's a dead-end phone little better than a Web-enabled cellphone -- remember those? Worse, Dillon's notion of licensing Sailfish for specific vendor services, such as for a Foursquare phone, is very naive, misreading the reality of mobile: Devices are used for multiple purposes, like PCs, not as specialized appliances like hammers and drills.

Despite its huge backer (Samsung), I'm also skeptical of Tizen, an OS that has had many guises (Moblin, Maemo, and MeeGo are the best known) but a common history of being mismanaged by both open source Linux committees and major vendors (Nokia and Intel). It's hard to believe anything whose pedigree is only dysfunctional can become functional, much less simple and usable. On the other hand, Samsung has shown a remarkable ability to innovate Android and improve its user experience, so there's hope. Still, those who've seen the early development versions say it's pretty bad.

The "open" angle. The open source community's desire to have "open" HTML beat "closed" iOS and Android -- the political engine driving both the Ubuntu and Firefox mobile OSes -- ignores the reality that users want better apps than the HTML world has been able to deliver. Users are also willing to commit to a rich platform to get them, just as they did with Windows and OS X -- and not desktop Linux.

Remember that iOS started in 2007 with the notion that "open" HTML apps were the path to success, complete with Steve Jobs' critique of traditional apps. A year later, the first iPhone had just toy apps, and Jobs did a 180-degree and brought the Xcode SDK that has led to the many desktop-quality apps of today. WebOS suffered from a similar lack of capability in its apps, under both Palm and Hewlett-Packard. Both are object lessons for the HTML-only advocates.

Don't get me wrong: HTML is very useful on smartphones, and not just in browsers. There's a reason why the iOS, Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry, and Tizen SDKs and dev tools make it easy to include HTML and JavaScript components in their apps. You want to go native when that makes sense and HTML when that makes sense -- and even mix the two in the same app. But when you go "pure HTML," you're basically throwing away the kind of app richness that have made mobile devices the smashing successes they are today.

Techno-political purity in mobile OSes makes the same sense as it has in desktop Linux -- that is, no sense.

The other "open" argument, that HTML apps are more easily ported, is misplaced. If your app really works well as an HTML app, then you'll make it for all the major platforms, either as a website to avoid any localization or as an encapsulated "native" app -- a straightforward process on all the mobile OSes' SDKs and IDEs that support HTML components. There's work to be done, to be sure, but it's easy to justify given the huge reach you get in return.

The race for No. 3: Windows Phone and BlackBerry 10
BlackBerry used to be the top smartphone, then rudely fell into near-oblivion after its makers ignored the sea change that iOS, then Android represented. BlackBerry wants back into the club that matters, and it hopes its all-new BlackBerry 10 will get it there.

Microsoft's Windows Mobile used to be the No. 2 mobile OS, but it languished from neglect. Microsoft too ignored the sea change that swept moble from 2007 to 2009, then belatedly came out with Windows Phone, an OS that did less than Windows Mobile in an era when users expected more.

Microsoft's three attempts at Windows Phone show it still doesn't get it. There's something hugely wrong with a Microsoft smartphone that is less securable using Microsoft's own technology than practically every competing smartphone. Windows Phone has many such self-inflicted wounds.

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