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Android and iOS alternatives: where is the competition?

With the demise of Ubuntu Mobile, the possibility of there being an alternative mobile operating system to disrupt the current iOS/Android duopoly effectively came to an end. With a combined market share of almost 100%, these two operating systems dominate consumer choice. The market needs an alternative with real endurance. 

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According to web analytics firm Net Market Share, the combined market share of both Android and iOS tallies in at 96.33%. The only other operating system which makes it over the 1% mark is Windows. However, it is important to consider that many visionaries predicted that Firefox OS or Ubuntu Phone had a real chance of being market contenders. Here we take a look back at what happened, and on what often goes wrong.

Ubuntu Mobile: what competition?

Spanish manufacturer BQ featured a range of Ubuntu smartphones and tablets in its product portfolio. These were supposed to promote the convergence of desktop and mobile hardware with extensive synchronization features. However, this convergence never materialized and Ubuntu Mobile was dropped. 

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Plan B for Ubuntu devices? / © ANDROIDPIT

The list of devices supported with Ubuntu Mobile was chronically short. Although BQ and Meizu expressed some interest, this was never fully realized and its market penetration failed. These devices offered little in the way of competition or unique value against cheaper Android devices. The finish was identical, and some devices were even available in an Android version. Ubuntu's failure is understandable - given the choice, the consumer will always choose a device which can support their favorite apps.

Opinion by Eric Herrmann
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Cyanogen OS: abandoned smaller partners like Wileyfox

Of all the Android alternatives discussed in recent years, the story of Cyanogen OS is certainly one of the more interesting ones. This is not least because of its controversial CEO, Kirk McMaster, who once announced plans to eliminate Android with his alternative operating system - intended to be a "bullet through the head" for Google. By increasing system modifiability, Cyanogen Inc. aimed to win more hardware and software developers than Google. The system was nevertheless designed to remain compatible with Android, to avoid the issue which toppled Ubuntu. However, as many key negotiations and deals fell through, including one with Nintendo, the project collapsed and the software was discontinued. 

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Will Wileyfox shut down following the fate of Cyanogen Inc? / © ANDROIDPIT

Small smartphone developers like Wileyfox were effectively abandoned after the closure of Cyanogen. It must now develop new versions of their software themselves. The Nougat update from Wileyfox, promised for the first quarter of 2017, is now being slowly rolled out but whether or not this will do the trick is still anyone's guess. Founder and CEO Nick Muir has left the company, which doesn't bode well for the small company. 

Firefox OS: good value but unreliable

Firefox OS was established with a promising vision. Instead of operating system-specific applications, their philosophy was instead to develop software like a website; based on HTML and other W3C Web standards. They aimed to run in all browsers and on all other operating systems. Unfortunately, this idea did not take off and the project was abandoned.

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Firefox OS was available for download from the Play Store as an app. / © ANDROIDPIT

ZTE and Alcatel were the only noteworthy smartphone manufacturers who invested significant resources into developing an alternative operating system. Huawei built a Firefox OS smartphone, and Panasonic released several television devices using the operating system. These smartphones however, settled in the cheaper end of the spectrum and offered limited performance. Many users were left unsatisfied. 

Windows: years of inertia  

Microsoft has enormous funds to subsidize its mobile offshoot for years to come. Despite this, the company has only been able to achieve minuscule market penetration. However, the blurring of the boundaries between mobile and desktop operating systems presents a unique opportunity for the software giant. 

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Windows on a tablet: not disastrous, but still awkward. / © ANDROIDPIT

According to recent Statcounter statistics, there are now more Android devices in existence than Windows-based ones. Android further threatens Microsoft if it can conquer the desktop OS market. Samsung has already demonstrated its DeX docking station, which it implemented with the Galaxy S8 device. Android should soon be coming desktop-ready straight out of the factory, and is expected to include new features such as multi-window, picture-in-picture and multi-display support. 

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Windows desktop? Nope - Samsung DeX. / © ANDROIDPIT

Tizen: neither free nor secure

Samsung has failed to muster any real interest in Tizen. The quality of the source code has also been deemed by security experts to be behind the competition. 

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Tizen powering new Samsung phones? Not likely! / © ANDROIDPIT

'It's as if a preschooler had been allowed to program the software.' That particular observation came from security researcher Amihai Neiderman during a lecture at the Kaspersky Labs Security Analyst Summit. Perhaps this is just one man's opinion, but Neiderman's reputation carries considerable weight. Accordingly, Tizen should remain as software for wearable devices and smart fridges for now, just so we can ensure that its unsecured system doesn't threatening our smartphones. 

Sailfish OS: takes a different route to Google

The Finnish software provider Jolla has recently signed a deal in China. The highly scalable Unix-based operating system supports watches, smartphones, televisions and other devices. 

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Sony smartphones support Jolla's operating system. / © ANDROIDPIT

Jolla takes a different route to Google. It allows states to license the entire operating system platform. The brand Sailfish no longer appears and customers have the option to replace or remove whole components of the system structure. As a result, they have the same flexibility as with a completely separate system. However, there is significantly less effort involved in implementation of the software. This is because the basic framework is still being developed, improved and kept secure as an open source project by Jolla and its other customers.

Due to its style licensing, Jolla is an invisible alternative to iOS and Android. Nevertheless, as an opposing system it is not to be underestimated. It is entirely possible that the system will grow so large in its partner markets that it spreads to the West. In this case, it may one day present a real threat to the Android/iOS duopoly. 

The bottom line

Of all the companies to take on the operating system market, only two have had real success. With iOS, Apple successfully combined touchscreen technology with the mobile phone, and thus established the operating standards of a smartphone. 

Android captured this idea, pairing it with a successful open-source system. Google had kept its system open enough to entice renowned hardware manufacturers. Since then, hundreds of smartphone manufacturers utilize the Android operating system. However, a Google monopoly is not healthy for the market.

The search for a competitive alternative continues. We are still faced with a formidable duopoly in the form of iOS and Android. Our gaze has turned to markets like China and Russia, where alternatives are being tested and refined. Here exists a glimmer of hope for the return of diversity in the OS market.

Have you tried any of these alternative mobile operating systems? Let us know what you think of them in the comments.

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  • Apple has stuck to its policy of not licensing its OS to other manufacturers. This was the greatest shot in the arm for the development of Android. Now that any manufacturer can make a mobile phone and put in Android, there's no encouragement for the daunting task of building and maintaining a new operating system. Why go to the trouble when you can just rake in some money by dazzling people with some great hardware specs and then putting in Android?
    One factor however, that can induce the development of a new OS is fear of Google setting excessive controls on Android. Aka Tizen. But with Tizen, Samsung did a really poor job and ultimately had to relegate it to smartwatches and TVs. Where it's likely to die an early death.
    With Sailfish OS, I think too much geekery by Jolla resulted in the strangling of what had great potential. No mass marketing. Only appeals to the geek crowd.
    Nobody much mentions Firefox OS these days. It made the mistake of being designed for low-end phones. Aiming low gets you nowhere. Like Marxism.
    You don't need to get rich. Make everyone poor.
    Then take the case of custom ROMs. Although they can't strictly be called alternatives to Android and iOS, for all practical purposes they function like alternatives. Yet do you see any real juice in them? Why exactly do you want them? To reduce bloatware? Not a very good reason, considering that since the majority of Android users use a large smorgasbord of apps, just getting rid of three or four pre-installed ones isn't going to save you that much battery or space. With the spectacular increase in processing power and inbuilt memory of even midrange phones during the course of the past few years, it really makes no sense over or underclocking the processor. And moreover, none of the custom ROM makers seem to have a clearsighted view of their own future. Whatever happened to Cyanogenmod? I still can't get the hang of it, what exactly happened. Why it had to rename itself. Plus the security. I feel secure using my non-rooted Samsung with Samsung Knox installed for a superb BYOD experience. Why would I risk the security loopholes of using a custom ROM just because I need a different looking interface (which can be achieved to a large extent using a launcher)?
    I think the future lies in not thinking of Android as an operating system on the same platform as iOS, but rather thinking of it as some basic raw material like cement or stone from which one can build great personalized edifices.

  • I've tried lots of alternatives, looking for a hidden gem of an OS... Unfortunately i'm not sure that one actually exists.

    Windows Mobile is pretty good, and I like the way it looks. Having Xbox achievements is nice, and built in features like data sense are great. Unfortunately, as with nearly any alternative to android or iOS, the lack of apps is noticable. Still it's pretty nice if you can find ways around the most popular apps you're missing. Ideally though i'd want something open source.

    So since I had an old OnePlus One lying around, I decided to stick Ubuntu Touch on it and see how it handled. Ubuntu Touch is actually supported in a semi-official capacity by UBports... I suppose since the project was dropped, the OnePlus port is about as official as it gets! Anyway, it's terrible. Sorry, but the UI design doesn't make any sense, the app store barely functions, there's barely anything there, and most apps that I tried would just close out instead of opening. It's a real shame too because my hopes were high.

    Firefox OS? Don't even go there. Feels like using a featurephone, I can't bear it.

    I'd like to give Sailfish OS a go, maybe if I get one of those Jolla phones at some point. They're pretty neat.

    I suppose the only open source thing I could realisticly do on mobile would be to install the Android Open Source Project and use F-Droid instead of Google Play.

    My quest to become completely open source continues...

  • This article was obviously written by someone who has a personal problem with Microsoft. I.e. Steve Job's claim that MS stole HIS Xerox GUI. I do not know how a window's phone works but WIN10 works very well on my NEXTBOOK and my wife's NuVISION tablets, with or without a keyboard and mouse. So well that we leave our laptops at home, including extended RV trips.

  • joost 4 months ago Link to comment

    Great article, and great comments so far (this time) .

  • From a user point of view, the current existence of two main competitors means he can't easily move from one system to the other due to incompatibilities. What the user wants and needs is universality of data and apps but this is very unlikely to happen in the near future. For a user, more contenders only means more incompatibility.

  • I dont agree that we need more OSs. With Android you have many players using a common platform which they can customise which creates competition in itself. But having them all using Android makes it more convenient for the user, it means I can switch from Samsung to HTC or from HTC to Huawei and still have all the same apps on my phone. Having a 3rd or 4th OS just makes it less easier to switch unless there is app compatibility

  • Any developer who wants to challenge Android and iOS with a new mobile operating system has a daunting task. Getting hundreds of top content creators and sites to make apps for that platform. Which they won't unless the subscriber base is huge. And the subscriber base won't be huge if there aren't apps a-plenty. A vicious cycle, really. One way around this is to get the core services to develop apps for the new platform. Like Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, mail applications, task managers, the most popular video and music players. Then the subscriber base will rise, and then the independent developers will follow with their apps.

  • Ummm.......iOS?

  • Man i really was interested in Sailfish after reading this article and went to take a look at the Jolla Phone, so disappointed by the specs...

  • This post brings me new ideas

  • I followed Ubuntu touch for awhile. I would like to have the ability to run a desktop OS on my tablet. I'm no fan of Microsoft and consider Office as about their only significant contribution at this point. It is the only one of their products I use and that is simply because is no viable alternative in the mass business environment at this time. My OS of choice on desktops and laptops is Linux. I've been using it as my primary OS since the 90s. Even with that said I still use MS Office mobile for critical work that requires collaboration with others.

    My beefs with Android are the latency in updating to newer kernel versions, the fact that the Play Store for the most part is an unorganized conglomeration of little more than games, and hardware vendors locking out root access along with preinstalling a bunch of garbage that you can't remove without root access.

    I think Android has plenty of possibility but that all relies on Google deciding the direction they are going to go with it and if it is going to end up merged with their Chrome OS. At this point and time due to the variety of hardware vendors using Android I don't see the environment changing much. Any new OS coming along has to be able to support multiple hardware platforms and be ralitivly easy to install. In that arena I would think Canonical with newer Linux kernels supporting more hardware would stand the best chance. Even at that you are dealing with the fact that Canonical does everything from the point of view that you are using Ubuntu. While Android is sitting on top of a Linux kernel dealing with flashing firmware in Linux is no small task and for the inexperienced can lead to a bricked device.

  • Dean L. 6 months ago Link to comment

    Interesting read. Nothing wrong with a little competition. It's healthy for the market and good for the Consumer.

  • storm 6 months ago Link to comment

    I think another linux kernel open OS will come along. But it's going to need either android driver compatibility or Qualcomm will need to opensource their drivers.

    Open source chips are another possiblity that could trigger this. But that's probably still a decade out before they become readily available. And they'll lag the performance of their commercial brethren. Or AI chip development becomes real and cheap for the open source community. That could collapse the commercial chip fabs into just making open source designs.

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