The world needs more smartphone operating systems?

Mike Dano

This year will mark the launch of close to half a dozen new operating systems for smartphones. Which raises one main question: Why?

Tizen, Sailfish, Ubuntu, Firefox OS and BlackBerry 10 are all scheduled to launch in some form or another this year. It's no secret that the odds are stacked against these players. Not only do they face serious competition from the biggest names in technology--Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS, Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android and Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone--there is also clear evidence of lackluster demand for another smartphone operating system. Remember webOS? Hewlett-Packard said in 2011 that "a number of companies have expressed interest" in licensing webOS--but to date there are no webOS takers.

If competition is fierce and demand unclear, why are so many players jumping into the market now? For Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM), BlackBerry 10 is the company's attempt at a comeback. And Sailfish, from Jolla, is an effort by Nokia's (NYSE:NOK) former MeeGo team to take that operating system commercial.

But Tizen, Firefox OS and Ubuntu are all Linux-based platforms that are being offered for free to handset makers. Just like webOS, these platforms are available to any handset maker that wants to build a smartphone running the platform.

There are two main drivers behind this new crop of open-source, Linux-based smartphone operating systems. The first is the dominance of Google's Android platform. At last count, Android powered fully 75 percent of smartphones worldwide. These figures mean that Google's brand and services are directing a large part of the mobile experience for a majority of the world's smartphone owners. This situation might not sit well with all of the players in the world's smartphone value chain--particularly wireless carriers.

"If we become a dumb pipe, our revenue will continue to shrink," Kiyohito Nagata, managing director of strategic marketing for DoCoMo, told CNET in explaining  why the operator is supporting the Tizen Association.

Handset makers also might not want to be too closely aligned to Google's Android--after all, Samsung is a major backer of Tizen.

Further, Google's acquisition last year of Motorola Mobility creates additional concerns. Although Google executives have repeatedly assured Android licensees that Motorola won't enjoy special treatment, the fact that Google owns and operates a major Android smartphone manufacturer creates a lever for those offering Android alternatives.

"There isn't a level playing field in Android," explained Canonical's Richard Collins. Canonical recently unveiled its Ubuntu smartphone operating system, and Collins said that Google's acquisition of Motorola was part of the reason Canonical decided to enter the mobile space.

The second major driver behind Tizen, Ubuntu and Firefox OS is the world's migration from desktop computing to mobile computing. As Ovum analyst Nick Dillon pointed out to me, the PC market is beginning to stagnate, which is forcing companies like Intel, Canonical and Mozilla to look elsewhere for growth.

Canonical, which offers the Ubuntu operating system for desktop computers, plans to broaden its OS to smartphones, tablets and TVs. Mozilla, which makes the Firefox Internet browser for desktop computers, has tested the mobile waters with Android and iOS apps, but it can't get the same kind of leverage with a third-party smartphone app that it can with a default Internet browser in the desktop world. Now Mozilla is seeding the market with Firefox OS phones for developers. And Tizen is backed in part by Intel, a company that made its name in desktop computing but is still working to break into mobile.

So there are a number of factors driving the latest wave of smartphone OS vendors. But will any of them generate success? Ovum's Dillon was less than enthusiastic: "None of these guys is doing anything really dramatically different."

I agree. I wouldn't be surprised if Tizen, Firefox and Ubuntu manage to generate some sales, but I haven't seen anything that really sets them apart from Android, iOS or Windows Phone. There may well be an opportunity for another smartphone operating system to make inroads against the market's major players, but it will need to offer more than a few new navigation tricks or homescreen improvements to succeed. +Mike Dano