2013, an interesting year for the mobile industry

So, today, Ubuntu revealed their mobile OS, something based on Android, but providing a full GNU Linux stack, that raises the number of competitors to the duopoly Android-iOS to … 7. In the announcement order

  • Samsung Tizen
  • Gram OpenWebOS
  • Firefox Mobile
  • Microsoft Windows Phone 8
  • RIM Blackberry 10
  • Jolla Sailfish
  • Canonical Ubuntu for mobile

Surprising ? Not really. For some of these competitors, mobile was part of their original market (RIM, Gram-HP-Palm or MicroNokia), but they did not foresee the venue of consumer-friendly touchscreen devices and failed to adapt, so they are facing a transition period. For others, mobile is a good opportunity to make some business, that might not be the most profitable one, but is a promising one.

The raise of open-source

We can see that in these 6 competitors, only one is fully closed source, Microsoft. All the others either try to build on Open source components, like RIM, or is trying to build a fully open-source platform. We can still remember that, 10 years back, how hard it was to run Linux on a desktop computer, and that it took many many years to get a piece of hardware supported. Today, everything changed. Big companies are supporting open-source initiatives, and the raise of popular code sharing, and online solution tools (github, stackoverflow to name a few) brought more contributors to big and small projects.

As Jussi Hurmola said, some years ago, maybe even in 2012, it was impossible for a startup to build a mobile device, but now, all the bricks are here, and widely available. For the seven newcomers, you can see that most of them (or all of them) are using open technologies to build their OS and API. As a reminder, here are the used API and toolkits used as base and middleware.

  • Tizen: HTML5 + JS API, EFL + Linux base
  • OpenWebOS: HTML5 + JS API, Qt5 + other middleware as base
  • Firefox Mobile: HTML5 + JS API, gecko + Android base
  • Windows Phone 8: C# + Silverlight API, WinRT base (not sure)
  • BB10: Qt + QML API (and several other), QNX base
  • Sailfish: Qt + QML API, Linux base
  • Ubuntu for mobile: Qt + QML API, Android base

The two main technologies used as main API for developers are then HTML5 + JS, and Qt + QML. The first is an open norm, defined by the W3C consortium and the ECMA group, while the second is a toolkit developed by Digia in a fully opened and meritocratic way. For middleware and base, most of them are using either Android, or standard Linux stack as a basis, that are, once again, developed in the open.

These components available as open-source software, and used as basic brick allows nearly everybody to build their smartphone OS. Everything now is rather a matter of adaptation (for HW) and innovation (for UI). Another component is the hardware, and now, thanks to those Chinese manufacturers like XiaoMi, the HW barrier is very low, since high quality smartphone can be build from them at low prices.

It is then not a surprise that so many companies try to get their piece of the mobile pie. It have never been so easy to build a smartphone or any other mobile device.

The race in UI innovation

The duopoly Android -iOS need to be challenged, as the products are lacking innovation, and that consumers may be waiting for other solutions, that could free them from Apple and Google’s golden cages. But producing yet another touchscreen friendly OS is not enough, as Android is already here and (pseudo) open-sourced, so any manufacturer wanting a touchscreen OS can grab a copy of the source code and do some adaptation.

The way to attack the two giants is to bring something fresh. And fresh things are often those that can be seen, or can be touched, that is, of course, the UI. And these competitors have taken different ways, that might or might not succeed. Actually, I can find an analogy between their decisions and the following picture from 9GAG.

If UI were game controllers, some companies would be Sony, other Microsoft, and other Nintendo

If UI were game controllers, some companies would be Sony, other Microsoft, and other Nintendo

Firefox OS, BB10: keep known things

Both BB10 and Firefox OS provides a basic UI, that is rich, but yet very simple and familiar. On BB10, there is the swipe back to minimize that is brought from WebOS, and MeeGo, while the page stack resemble to widgets, or live tiles. The launcher is obviously the same as those available in iOS, Android and several other OSes. On Firefox OS, it is even simpler since you have the home button, and several apps, that are basically webapps (or web pages) that are launched from a global launcher.

These two companies resemble much to Sony for game controllers. Launcher icons are nice, so why break it ? N9-like swipe is awesome, and minimized apps are a good way to switch between apps, so why bother doing anything else ? A home button is OK-ish, so it might be too painful or too risky to try to invent another way to go back to home …

This strategy worked well for Android, but I’m a bit less convinced by what Firefox Mobile and BB10 are providing. Well, actually, I’m far more bothered about the lack of innovation from Firefox Mobile.

Firefox mobile OS homescreen

Firefox mobile OS homescreen

Firefox OS seems to be a ripoff from iOS, borrowing the dock, launchers, and the home button (just under the dock). It might bring some new stuff, like “everything me”, and the notifications à la Android, but what I have to say is that it is just a ripoff. No much time were spent on design process to do something different and innovate a bit on how to layout information on that small screen.

Even if this lack of innovation might be a good point because those coming from iOS will feel at home with Firefox Mobile, the main question will be: “why should I switch from iOS, the most wonderful OS ever, to that pale copy ?” Of cause, Firefox OS is still in development, so there might be new features ahead.

BB10 is not a ripoff of any well known OS, but it takes heavy inspiration from Nokia MeeGo. The launcher menu, the multitasking area and the notification center resemble much to those displayed in the N9’s home, and the swipe gestures are close to be the same. RIM bothered in adding personal touches, making the OS looking more professional, and the result is neat and impressive.

BB10 running on a Dev Alpha (Credits: TechCrunch)

BB10 running on a Dev Alpha (Credits: TechCrunch)

Those that have used a N9 will fell immediately at home, and others will quickly get used to the swipy interface, and the multitasking system. Plus, the API used is Qt, that is a very interesting migration path for developers from the N9, it is a good bet that RIM has done in taking inspiration from Nokia MeeGo.

Sailfish, be organic

Sailfish is interesting because it’s UI received particular love from it’s designers, and we can feel the spirit of Nokia MeeGo developers inside. Instead of just redoing swipe UI again, designers from Jolla took the concept to the max, trying to translate all the behavioral patterns into the UI.

If a task (an app) is useless, it should be pushed out of the view, if I want to get back, I can also push a page back. The haptic feedback inside the pulley menu is also part of that way of following your mind: you do not need to look at your phone, you can use other senses to feel what your phone is doing.

This design, plus the ambiance customization, that make the phone change color, adapted to the background you choose, a bit like a chameleon, is what I call organic. It gives that impression that your phone is living, and listen to you. Because the movements are intuitive, and that they are optimized, tasks are done very fast, and you can feel that the phone is helping you in doing them, instead of preventing you.

Sailfish design appeals a lot to me. It is very innovating and took swipe to the max, since close to everything requires swipe. But innovation requires risks. A lot of innovating products did not succeeded, and only those that were properly advertised (iPhone is, of cause, the best example) might have a chance.

"Swipe to back" gesture demoted (credits engadget)

“Swipe to back” gesture demoted (credits engadget)

Ubuntu, the challenger from the desktop

Canonical, the editor of Ubuntu, have taken the traditional path in creating a mobile OS: translating the desktop one into mobile. We have seen some of them doing that, like Microsoft and their Windows Mobile, or Apple with iOS. The first utterly failed while for the second, it was a huge success.

For what I have seen, Ubuntu is trying to display the content and only the content (and I’m happy with that since focusing on content is something that I love). The homescreen differs a lot from other mobile devices since it do not provides all the applications, opened or closed. It rather display things that the user might appreciate, like some important apps, most played songs, suggested books or films. There is also a lot of swipy gestures, from the left to the right to discover the dock and minimize application, from the right to the left to switch tasks, from the top to get notifications, and from the bottom to show a menu.

I did not have the opportunity to have a lot of time with that UI (because I did not watch all these videos about it yet), but I feel that the full Ubuntu spirit is here. The homescreen is a scaled down version of the dash, and the dock is exactly the Ubuntu dock. But on a smaller screen, these elements cannot stay on the screen all the time, like on a desktop, so those swipe gestures need to be brought.

I also feel that the Ubuntu UI displays more information, maybe because of the heavy inspiration it draws from the desktop, so all the toolbars and menus that take place were removed. This is a nice and good way to focus on content (as previously said), but brings the need to one more gesture to show these additional tools. There seems to be no indicator that this gesture could be triggered, and that might be quite confusing.

Other confusing things include drop-down menu with multiple tabs that is really strange to navigate with (at least I felt that)  and this intriguing wheel in the lock screen, which I still did not understand the use.

My feelings about Ubuntu are quite mixed. They indeed have some good ideas, but are maybe bringing something too complicated, and too much information at the same time.

The Ubuntu dock triggering the home (credits engadget)

The Ubuntu dock triggering the home (credits engadget)

Tizen, Windows phone

I wont’ talk a lot about Tizen and Windows Phone because the first was not really announced clearly and demoted (and resemble a lot to Bada, that is basically a ripoff of Android), and the second is here for around one year that means that the paradigms introduced by Windows Phone (Tiles, swipable categories, hubs) are already “common design patterns” for mobile.

The mobile race

In the 2013 mobile race some competitors are ahead, and some are behind, each one with their own strength and weakness

Leading the way: Microsoft and RIM

The two leaders, that have the strongest chances, are obviously Microsoft and RIM, that are fighting for the 3rt place in the mobile ecosystem. Microsoft already took one step (Windows Phone 7) to fill the gap between it’s old Windows Mobile OS, and the more modern one, Windows Phone 8, while betting on tablet with WinRT as well. RIM also took several years, acquiring many companies, like QNX, in order to build the next mobile OS.

Both companies (assuming Microsoft to be associated to Nokia) were big players in the mobile before and knows the mobile market very well. Their product timing and announcement timing are also very good. Microsoft and Nokia are advertising Windows Phone 8 since December, and RIM will announce something at the end of the month, releasing one or several really impressive Blackberries (if the leaks are correct).

So, if a third player emerges during 2013, and it might be unlikely, it might be RIM or Microsoft. My preferences goes to RIM, because of the very bad connotation associated to the Windows brand, and thanks to the impressive devices that RIM will release.

Outsider number 1: Tizen

We don’t know much about Samsung’s Tizen strategy, and that’s a pity since Tizen is an opensource project, but new rumors spread saying that Samsung will release several Tizen devices in 2013, and announce them in CES.

Tizen OS is neither the most innovative, nor the most easy to develop. It uses HTML5 as a framework, that can be limiting for, eg games, and uses EFL as libraries, a framework that is really great, but lacks backing and documentation. But Samsung has proven to us that the beauty or attractiveness of a platform do not influence at all the consumer. Bada sold a lot, but was a limited platform, a bit like Nokia’s S40 for low end phones. I expect Tizen to sell a lot as well, if Samsung’s announce is done in a good fashion, and if Samsung can use it’s brand reputation to sell these new devices.

Tizen is the unknown in the equation.

Outsider number 2: Jolla Sailfish

Jolla is in a tough position. They are small, unlike all the other competitors, and that makes them very vulnerable. Without brand recognition, they are unknown from the consumer, and might fail to attract partners and developers. Their UI is (in my opinion) the most innovative one, but UI is not the only factor in standing out in a crowd.  And their timing is short. Releasing before summer is already a tough task for that small company, while those RIM, Microsoft and Samsung are battling with lots of $$$ to get new devices faster.

But Jolla still stand a chance to carve a small niche. Unlike those huge players, they do not depend on huge sells to maintain themselves, and with their partnership that were created in China, they might sell enough devices for reaching profitability. But long term success is not guaranteed, as I don’t know if a niche market in mobile phone can exist since it would not have any ecosystem to survive.

Too little to late ?

For OpenWebOS, Firefox Mobile OS and Ubuntu Mobile, I think that it is a bit late for them to enter in the market, at least for the 2013 race. They either provided to little results, like the Firefox Mobile, that only provided a sort of chrome OS tailored for mobile, or Ubuntu, that entered in the race without any partner.

Conclusion

2013 did not yet started, but promises to be very interesting. A new year for mobile ! I currently expect three senarii, depending on how the big two and the outsiders manages the situation.

  1. No change at all: the big two are here to stay
  2. Android and iOS loosing market, RIM entering as the 3rd one, as a company, huge jump for Tizen (0% -> 15%)
  3. Android and iOS loosing market, RIM entering as the 3rd one, as a company, huge jump for Tizen and Sailfish (15% shared)

But this analysis (even if I’m way too far from being an analyst) did not take in account the innovations that the big two are bringing. Apple is rumored to work on a smart watch, while Google is perfecting the Google glasses for an augmented reality world. These new gadgets might disrupt the tech world again … or not.

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11 thoughts on “2013, an interesting year for the mobile industry

  1. Interesting point of view and summary of the situation. I think that marketing will be very important in the coming months. Because with all these competitors, only brands that will be able to promote their system will survive.
    And unfortunately, these brands are the big one not the smallest (marketing is very expensive). So I’m a little bit afraid about Jolla, FirefoxOS …
    According to what will be Tizen, I think BB10 and WP are the best to be the 3th mobile OS.
    Let see what will happen in this exciting year 🙂

      • Of course, but Crosoft also tried to promote their phone via big network … and look at the results !!! And don’t speak about closed system, most people don’t care about that 😉 !!!

        • It is not about closed system, of cause. What I feel wrong with MS is the brand reputation. If they had created a new brand, like XBox (let’s call that new brand Surface OS) it won’t be the same.

          Lumia with the new Surface OS is better for the consumer than _Nokia_ Lumia, with _Windows_ Phone 8 (two brands associated to old, buggy stuff)

  2. Nice point of view, man, I’m writing a similar post about UIs! Microsoft is perhaps already the 3rd pole of the market, just looking at the efforts Nokia’s putting in it. Tizen is awful. If you watched the hands-on with the prototype phone it just looks bad. About RIM…mmm…I don’t know, it will depends on how customers will take the move. I loved so much webOS, but I can’t figure out how it would take the market…with a new phone? With a ROM for the actual devices? It’s the same with Ubuntu…2014 is too far. Of course, I keep all my hope to Jolla although just a couple of great players are actually in Sailfish Alliance…

    • I gave MS one full year to shine. It did not.
      Saying that ugly stuff like Tizen cannot succeed is forgetting the Bada stuff.
      About RIM I’m not sure either, but you will see ads everywhere, and it might be orchestrated better than with MicroNokia.

  3. Nice post. I’d like to clarify. Tizen is an opensource project behind closed doors. The Tizen Association is invitation-only industry consortioum, renamed from similarly closed LiMo. The development is basically Samsung Linux Platform, developed since 2007 (!) now with only limited role of Intel. Finally, unlike Qt SDK, Tizen SDK is closed source blob.

    So at least Microsoft does not claim its platform is opensource.

    Technically Tizen is inferior to bada since the former had native application framework and Tizen SDK (1.0 and 2.0) only supports HTML5. Weird choice, poor differentiator, considering that all the ecosystems you mention above also support HTML5 too.

    You can go and check at tizen.org.

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