Finally, a year when mobile doesn't seem like a two-horse race
Writing about mobile feels a lot like writing about politics during an election year. Contenders are simplified into easily understood archetypes -- "Mitt Romney hates Big Bird!" "iOS is nothing but a walled garden!" -- and seen as "evil" or "good," numbers are crunched as onlookers quantify the race to the top -- or, as no one has ever said, "Gettin' their Nate Silver on" -- and the contest is made to seem like there are only two candidates, despite other parties -- the Green Party, Windows Phone, etc. -- vying for that top spot. But maybe, just maybe, 2013 will be a little different.
It's not that Android and iOS are without their competitors. Microsoft has been shipping Windows Phone devices since 2010 and, believe it or not, RIM still sells BlackBerry devices. Neither operating system is doing all that well, what with Windows Phone 8's lackluster launch and RIM's continued swirling of the drain, but it's never just been a battle between iOS and Android. This year will introduce even more competitors, and it's nice to think that at least one of them can prove that there's more to mobile than whatever comes out of Mountain View and Cupertino.
Perhaps the most promising contender is Sailfish, a mobile operating system developed by a group of ex-Nokia engineers called Jolla. The company is counting on two differentiators to make a name for itself: A gesture-driven interface and China. As Hamish McKenzie reported after the announcement of Sailfish, Jolla has partnered with D-Phone, a large Chinese retail chain, to crack the largest mobile market on Earth.
Then there's Tizen, a more-open-than-Android open source operating system managed by the Linux Foundation. Though there hasn't been an official announcement yet, Samsung is rumored to be introducing a Tizen-based smartphone this year. Since Samsung sells more smartphones than any other Android manufacturer, the company's move to another platform – one which it can control and modify without having to worry about Google – could drastically change the mobile market.
Mozilla is also working on a new mobile operating system, Firefox OS. The HTML5-based operating system, which anyone can test on their desktop, promises to free users from the closed nature of iOS and Android. Users will be able to add apps from a variety of sources and developers can reach their intended audience without having to wait for their app to be approved by a third-party, a frustrating experience that many developers would rather live without.
Other options are out there as well. WebOS, the Palm-built operating system that HP drove into the ground, is being released as an open source project -- all it would take is a dedicated manufacturer to get a new device released. And, despite RIM's death spiral, the company might still be able to wow customers with new devices slated for release at the end of the month. (I wouldn't hold my breath on that, but it could happen.) If Microsoft continues to push the Xbox brand or decides to release its own "Surface phone" -- and convinces developers to support its platform -- Windows Phone could yet become a viable alternative to iOS or Android.
Will any of these efforts threaten iOS or Android to the point where Apple or Google should be concerned? No one knows. Remember that desktops have long been dominated by OS X or Windows, despite efforts from Google and any number of Linux-based operating systems. Mobile is still (relatively) young, though, so there remains a chance, no matter how slim, that someone could steal some of the mobile market.
Expect to read about more than just iOS or Android this year. I have a feeling that Sailfish, Tizen, Firefox OS, and other mobile operating systems will be chipping away at Apple and Google's headline count. Whether or not any of these solutions ends up "winning" isn't the point -- the joys of watching companies offer their own, unique takes on mobile will be good enough for me.