Tired of the same old iPhone-vs.-Android mobile wars, with Windows Phone and BlackBerry skirmishing on the sidelines? Then Mobile World Congress, starring new combatants Firefox OS, Ubuntu Touch, Tizen, and Sailfish, was the show for you.
Although mobile operating systems weren't the only news in Barcelona this week -- ARM introduced battery-saving technology for tablets and smartphones, Intel announced an Android tablet running a lesser Atom processor, and HP reentered the consumer tablet market with its new Slate 7-inch tablet -- they garnered the lion's share of attention.
Mozilla was most visible at MWC, with its plans to bring an open source, low-cost operating system to smartphones. In its big announcement, Mozilla named four phone makers and 18 operators lining up behind Firefox OS; Sony is considering joining that list as well. In the meantime, Sony will provide an experimental version of Firefox OS on one of its smartphones so that developers can try it and start developing applications. Mozilla has made available a host of tools for developers and plans to offer a store for phone apps written in HTML5. Twitter and Facebook have already signed on to offer apps for the new OS. As Gary Kovacs, CEO of Mozilla, said in a New York Times interview, "There are about 100,000 iOS developers, and 400,000 Android developers, but there are 10 million Web developers. They will be able to work with this, almost out of the box."
But don't expect Firefox OS to give Android or iOS a run for their money in the United States anytime soon. In fact, Kovacs says the platform isn't even due Stateside until 2014. And some who saw Firefox OS at MWC deemed it not ready for prime time in its current state. "What is clear from the Firefox OS demonstration handsets that we have seen was that they are still some way from being market ready, being both slow and buggy," said analyst Tony Cripps of Ovum.
Check out a demo of Firefox OS on a ZTE smartphone:
Firefox and its new OS may have won the battle for the the blogosphere's attention this week, but Cnet, while acknowledging the impressive number of carriers and manufacturers supporting the Firefox OS, gave Ubuntu's new mobile OS its Best in Show award. Canonical announced Ubuntu for phones a few weeks ago, but took the wraps off the software's tablet counterpart just last week. Two days after that launch, Canonical offered a Ubuntu Touch Porting guide and kicked off its "port-a-thon," in hopes of getting the software up and running on more devices. The project has indicated that another 25 devices are now under development.
In his hands-on review, Galen Gruman calls Ubuntu Touch "a more compelling mobile environment, even in the first developer version, than I expected. It borrows heavily from other mobile UIs, including BlackBerry 10, the iPad, Android, WebOS, and Windows Phone, yet manages to feel like its own OS. It's much too soon to rate, but the OS is promising."
Among the most notable features offered by Canonical's Ubuntu for tablets are "side stage" multitasking, which lets users run both a phone app and a tablet app on the screen at the same time, along with full disk encryption not only for the device itself but of personal user data -- so the device can be shared by several people in an enterprise setting. The Cnet team at MWC said Ubuntu Touch "feels more like the complete package [than Firefox OS] at this point. We liked its slick, elegant interface that makes use of every side of the screen and puts your content and contacts front and center, minimizing the time spent hopping back to a home screen."
Here's Ubuntu Touch at work on a smartphone: