Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry 10 aren’t the only smartphone operating systems vying for a place in your pocket. There are other smartphone operating systems in development — and they’re all Linux-based.
Google’s Android operating system is also based on Linux, although it’s very different from typical Linux distributions. Other smartphone platforms — especially Canonical’s Ubuntu Phone — are much closer to a typical Linux system.
Firefox OS is Mozilla’s attempt to create their own smartphone operating system. It’s based on the Firefox browser and Gecko rendering engine, with each app using web technologies like HTML5. Mozilla is launching Firefox OS devices in developing markets first.
Mozilla sees the web as the future application platform for every device. Most computer users use a web browser for most things, but people tend to use native applications on smartphones. These applications are confined to a single operating system or even a single app store. Mozilla wants to bring the open web to smartphones and replaced those native applications with web applications.
Google’s Chrome OS is a Chrome-based operating system for laptops that relies on web apps. Firefox OS is a bit like Chrome OS for smartphones.
Ubuntu wants to create a touch-optimized interface that works on smartphones, tablets, and even TVs. This isn’t meant to be a separate operating system. Rather, the intention is to have a single version of the Ubuntu Linux distribution. When installed on a smartphone, you’d see a touch-optimized interface designed for your screen size. When installed on a PC, you’d see a desktop interface optimized for a keyboard, mouse, and large screen. Crucially, Ubuntu’s vision is that the same Unity desktop and Linux software would be running on both devices. Unity would automatically resize and adapt to the screen size and device.
This means you could seamlessly dock an Ubuntu phone and gain access to a full Linux desktop running on that device. It’s an impressive vision, one that tries to combine a full desktop operating system with a mobile operating system. It’s a bit like Microsoft’s vision for Windows Phone and Windows 8 — one operating system that runs the same apps with different interfaces for different devices. Microsoft isn’t there yet, of course.
Amazon’s Fire OS — first used on their Kindle Fire tablets and now arriving on the Fire Phone smartphone — is actually based on Android. However, Fire OS isn’t just another rebranded version of the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) code with Google’s stuff stripped out. Fire OS is more of a fork of Android, and it’s moving in its own direction. In fact, if you look at Amazon’s specification page, you’ll see that older Kindle Fire devices were considered “based on Android,” while newer Kindle Fire models are considered “compatible with Android.”
Fire OS’s Android roots provide Amazon with a large amount of apps that can be easily ported from Android and placed on the Amazon App Store. It also means they can push the Amazon App Store as a solution for other Android devices, competing directly with Google Play and selling Android apps to their customers.
For all intents and purposes, Kindle Fires and Fire Phones seem like they run their own unique operating system. They don’t have access to Google’s services or all the apps in Google Play, but they do have their own features that fit with Amazon’s strengths.For example, Fire OS provides a Mayday feature that lets you video chat with a support representative within fifteen seconds and an app that can quickly scan products so you can purchase them on Amazon.
Tizen is an open-source platform generally associated with Samsung. Tizen is actually the umbrella of the Linux Foundation, and both Samsung and Intel are on its steering committee. Samsung’s own Android “Galaxy” devices run the TouchWiz skin with Samsung’s own look, and Tizen looks very similar to TouchWiz.
This is clearly a backup operating system for Samsung. If they wanted to leave Google Android and go in their own direction, they could start pushing Tizen on the next Galaxy S phone — after all, Tizen is designed to look almost exactly like those Galaxy phones do today. Samsung is beginning to ship a handful of Tizen smartphones, and the Samsung Galaxy Gear 2 smartwatch also runs Tizen.
There’s one big problem for Samsung here — Tizen has basically no apps, as it isn’t compatible with Android apps. Samsung would have to convince Android app developers to create apps for Tizen if they wanted to leave Android behind and push their own platform. They wouldn’t have Google’s apps, either. For all we know, Samsung may just be keeping Tizen in the wings as a bargaining chip in their negotiations with Google.
Before they bet big on Windows Phone, Nokia was developing a Linux-based smartphone operating system known as Maemo. This project eventually merged with Intel’s Moblin project and was renamed MeeGo. The Nokia N9 was the only MeeGo phone Nokia ever released, and many people still look back on it fondly today. Nokia ended development on the MeeGo project and chose to go with Microsoft’s Windows Phone.
In response, many members of the MeeGo team left Nokia and formed a company named Jolla. They took the open-source bits of the MeeGo code — from the community-developer Mer project — and created the Sailfish operating system with it, rewriting the closed source bits they couldn’t use.
Technically, Jolla’s Sailfish isn’t a successor to MeeGo. Nokia never licensed the MeeGo name or intellectual property to Jolla and still owns it. In spirit, Sailfish is basically a continuation of MeeGo, as seen on the Nokia N9 phone.
Sailfish and MeeGo before it are interesting because they’re more of a standard Linux system. Apps could be created with Qt, and you could launch a terminal and install Linux package files. Sailfish now has some compatability with Android apps, too.
Palm’s webOS, as seen on the Palm Pre and Palm Pixi, is widely considered ahead of its time. HP acquired Palm and webOS along with it in 2010. HP had big plans for WebOS — they were going to use it on smartphones, tablets, and even printers. HP was even going to launch PCs running webOS!
The most famous webOS device HP ever released was the HP TouchPad tablet. The $500 HP TouchPad couldn’t compete with the iPad, and HP eventually cut their price to $99 to sell them as quickly as possible. HP also announced they planned to sell their consumer PC products group entirely, getting out of the business of making PCs, tablets, and smartphones. HP had clearly lost their zeal for webOS.
HP eventually changed their mind, and decided they did want to keep selling PCs and tablets. However, they were still done with webOS. They eventually open-sourced much of its code as “WebOS Community Edition,” and the Open webOS project took this code and kept developing it as a community project.
In 2013, LG licensed webOS to LG for use on LG smart TVs. This provided them with a slick interface to replace the terrible interfaces found on most smart TVs. LG now sponsors the Open webOS project. They haven’t announced plans to bring webOS from televisions back to smartphones, but webOS was originally created for smartphones — it could appear on an LG smartphone one day.
WebOS was an operating system that depended on web apps. Many of its features were unrivaled at the time, and similar features are still appearing in modern operating systems today. For example, Apple’s iOS 7 multitasking interface looks an awful lot like webOS’s multitasking cards, which was introduced four years earlier.
Microsoft’s Nokia X platform deserves an honorable mention. This operating system is designed to look like Windows Phone, but it’s not Windows Phone — it’s simply a build of the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) code without Google’s services and with Microsoft’s own services in this place. It’s a Microsoft-made phone that runs Android apps, but it doesn’t have access to the Google Play Store.
Unlike Fire OS — which Amazon seems committed to — it’s hard to see the Nokia X platform going anywhere. Microsoft is clearly committed to Windows Phone. We’ll likely see them wind down development on Nokia X in favor of Windows Phone.