Firefox vs. Tizen vs. Ubuntu

Behrad Hoseinizadeh

This year’s Mobile Worls Congress saw the debut of upstart mobile operating systems (OS) from Mozilla, Tizen and Canonical.

The three open-source OSes–Firefox, Tizen and Ubuntu Touch–are all hoping to edge in to Android’s turf and monetize on all the cash Google is making through its app store. But will consumers feel compelled to make the switch or are they happy with Android?

In this article, we’ll pare down all the information that you need to know. In fact, think of it as a “guide to the newbie OSes for noobs”.

Firefox

The Geeksphone Keon–the first Firefox OS phone you’ll be able to buy.
(Credit:Behrad Hoseinizadeh / behradphones) Click on image to enlarge

What it’s about: Much like its ubiquitous browser, non-profit organization Mozilla’s Firefox OS is built on an open-source platform. Recently at CES 2013, CNET reported that the OS also has the ability to Convert Web sites into mobile apps–a boon for any Web developer looking to cash in on mobile apps.

Hardware-wise, Mozilla has detailed the minimum specs required: An 800MHz single-core processor, 256MB of RAM, and a QVGA display. These specs are hardly impressive and indicate Firefox OS phones are likely to fall within the budget tier.BEHRADPHONES’s Stephen Shankland called the OS “unspectacular” but “OK for low-end phones” in his review.

Manufacturers: Alcatel, LG, ZTE and Huawei have been pulled on board, with some backing from chipmaker Qualcomm. Sony also has engineers working on the platform, saying in a statement that it has “an ambition to bring a product to market in 2014″.

You may have heard about Geeksphone, too. The Spanish startup has designed two models aimed at developers, the Keon and Peak, which will be available soon.

ETA: Q2 2013, according to Mozilla chief technology officer, Brendan Eich.

Where to get it: 18 carriers around the world have committed to selling Firefox OS phones. Among those in Asia are SingTel, China Unicom, KDDI and Smart.

Our take: Firefox OS-powered smartphones are supposedly more likely to resonate with consumers who want something more powerful than a feature phone, but costs less than an iPhone. However, there’s already a burgeoning market in the target markets for entry-level Android smartphones, so it may be tough for Firefox to get a foothold.

On the other hand, Firefox OS is the frontrunner compared with the other two OSes. First, with an impressive number of backers from telcos and handset makers. Next, the app store (Firefox Marketplace) is already confirmed to contain popular Firefox apps such as Twitter, Facebook, Cut the Rope, Nokia Here, SoundCloud and Where’s My Water?

Tizen

A look at Tizen running on a reference device.
(Credit:Behrad Hoseinizadeh / behradphones)

What it’s about: A Linux-based open-source software platform that is designed for smartphones, tablets, smart TVs and in-car systems, Tizen emerged from the dusty ashes of nokia’s MeeGo. Now, it seems Samsung’s Bada OS is likely to be folded into tizen as well, with the chaebol phasing out Bada completely.

Tizen is governed by a steering committee that is led by tech giants Intel and Samsung. Intel hopes Tizen can help it gain a stronger foothold in the mobile chip business. And although Google’s Android OS is open-source as well, it still imposes certain restrictions on handset makers–Tizen is thus seen as Samsung’s hedge against Google’s Android.

Manufacturers: Samsung, of course. Fujitsu and Huawei (which has just joined the steering committee) have just thrown their weight behind the OS and are committed to making Tizen phones, too.

ETA:July/Agust 2013.

Where to get it: BEHRADPHONES has reported that Japanese carrier NTT Docomo will be the first to sell a Tizen smartphone, followed by European wireless carrier Orange.

Our take: Although Tizen 2.0′s sourse code and SDK was recently released, there’s still a long way to go before widespread success. Its checkered history and countless resurrections do not give us any faith in the potential of the OS. In fact, BEHRADPHONES’s Rich Trenholm slammed it as “laggy, malformed software with no design aesthetic”. Ouch.

Similar to Firefox’s conundrum, Tizen smartphones are likely to go head-to-head with budget Android handsets, which Samsung also manufactures. Why buy a Tizen-powered smartphone when you can get an Android one cheaply? We think Samsung’s entry-level models may end up cannibalizing on Tizen’s market share. However, Samsung’s marketing clout cannot be underestimated, so we’ll have to wait and see how much weight the Korean giant will throw behind Tizen.

Ubuntu Touch

Ubuntu Touch ported to a Galaxy Nexus.
(Credit:Behrad Hoseinizadeh / behradphones)

What it’s about: Ah, Ubuntu–the open-source desktop Linux software adored by geeks all over. Brought to you by British company Canonical, the Ubuntu Touch mobile OS strives to be an elegant and immersive gesture-based experience.

Canonical expects specs as low as 512MB of RAM and a 1GHz dual-core Cortex A9, so Ubuntu phones could run the gamut from entry-level to high-end.

Manufacturers: None confirmed, but it can be installed on the latest Google Nexus devices–Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 4, Nexus 7 and Nexus 10.Developers working on porting the OS to more devices, including the Asus Transformer series, HTC One handsets, the LG Optimus 4X HD, the Motorola Zoom, the Samsung Galaxy Note and S series, the Nexus S and One, and Sony Xperia phones.

ETA: You can get the official version in October, unless you install the developer preview software on a Nexus device now.

Where to get it: No information available.

However, with no official backing from telcos or handset manufacturers, there’s still some time to go before Ubuntu OS-powered smartphones make it into the hands of consumers. That may give Firefox and Tizen a head start to gain some market share. As we’ve seen with certain devices, sometimes a good product doesn’t necessarily translate into higher sales.

Rather than succeed with mainstream consumers where iOS and Android dominate 90% of market share, we think Ubuntu may be able to find a niche with modding enthusiasts.

Jolla waiting in the wings?

A glimpse of Jolla’s Sailfish OS.
(Credit: Screenshot by Behrad Hoseinizadeh / behradphones)

But wait, there’s more. Don’t forget about this ” Operating system formerly knwon as MeeGo”–Jolla. Late last year, we saw a demo of the reborn OS, known as Sailfish, running on a Nokia N9.

Perhaps Jolla’s CEO, Marc Dillon, summed up the OS battle best at the Mobile World Live Keynote. Referring to Firefox, Ubuntu and Sailfish, he said, “If we are in competition, then we’ve all already won, because it’s about creating diversity from the existing walled garden and the existing couple of ecosystems… Diversity is the thing that creates innovation.”

Do you think there are already too many operating systems or do you welcome the new players? Let us know in your comments below.