The Mobile Platforms to Watch in 2014

Chris Ward

Apple Android mashup

Image from gordonkelly.com

With an average global combined market share of 85-95%, iOS and Android are by far the dominant players in the mobile operating system space. So why bother looking into or developing on any other platforms?

First, you might be an inquisitive person, and maybe are just interested in exploring new systems and concepts. Second, when has the tech space ever stayed still? The main players of today may not be the main players in six months time, and it pays to keep an eye on the underdogs and new entrants. After all, the market may change very suddenly. This is especially relevant as many emerging markets are becoming ripe for low end smart phone adoption — and it’s anyone’s game in these new emergent and vast markets.

This is my first article as the SitePoint mobile editor, so what better way to kick things of than a tour through the mobile platforms you may not have considered yet? Expect further deep dives into these over the next few months.

Windows Phone

Windows Phone logoPutting Windows phone on a list of ‘other’ platforms may be a controversial choice, but to many it’s still not taken seriously and is still the butt of many jokes. With the recent 8.1 update it has become a more attractive and viable platform for consumers and developers outside of Microsoft evangelists and could become a contender in the top 3.

Concept
In some respects Microsoft spearheaded the recent rise of flat and clean design concepts, or ‘Authentically digital’, casting aside many dated UX analogies. The platform focuses on rigid design principles, lack of interface clutter and on providing constant updates to users through features such as ‘live tiles’. Microsoft is trying hard to create consistency and parity across their hardware offerings and while it hasn’t been all successful, it feels like they are slowly gaining ground and taking user feedback on board.

Development
Unsurprisingly for a company that has been making development tools for decades, there are several options for developing apps for Windows phone including Silverlight, .Net and Visual studio. To develop for Windows Phone you will need Visual studio, which is Windows only (expect tutorials on this soon).

Market
There is often controversy and contradiction with regard to Windows phone market share. It has gained an average of 7% in most markets over the past year. This is not huge but it’s still a lot of people and many predict that the next year may see further increases for the platform. Microsoft often hand out cash or in-kind incentives to develop for their platform, so if you’re even slightly intrigued it may be time to investigate.

Ubuntu Phone

Ubuntu phone handsetsCanonical (Ubuntu’s parent company) made history last year by launching the largest crowd funding campaign ever, attempting to raise $32 million for their novel dual desktop and phone device, the Ubuntu Edge. The campaign fell short by several million, but was a success as a marketing campaign for the mobile platform, which shares much in common with the desktop version of Ubuntu.

Concept
Ubuntu phone is heavy on its own unique concepts, introducing many different ideas to the table. These include:

  • Personalised lock screens
  • Scopes, a method of organising apps and data into related categories based upon topic or personal usage
  • Side swiping from screen edges are used for accessing apps and other shortcuts
  • Notifications don’t disturb you, rather they sit in a notifications drawer waiting for you to check them.
  • Content not controls. Controls are hidden from the screen, available on an upward screen swipe, creating focus on the apps’ content.
  • Desktop similarities – A lot of effort has been put into bringing Ubuntu’s desktop benefits into its phone OS including security, search and universal updates.

Development
Perhaps one of the biggest barriers to Ubuntu Phone uptake is its development path. HTML5 apps are possible, but to go native you will have to learn a whole new development language and environment, QML (or Qt). Qt isn’t unique to Ubuntu and QML is ‘JavaScript like’, so it may not be as big a barrier as it initialy seems. You will also need to be running Ubuntu, but that’s free and you can run it in a Virtual machine, so again, not a massive barrier.

Market
Ubuntu phone is focusing on supporting manufacturers instead of carriers or manufacturing itself. Canonical already has several major global carriers on board and are aiming at the ‘mid-high end’ market with Asia and Europe its initial targets. Its potential app market is currently unclear and progress has been slow, perhaps the world’s Linux fan-folk will kickstart it’s jostling for number 3 or 4 in the mobile ecosystem.

Tizen

Tizen logoTizen is seen as Samsung’s attempt to break free of its reliance on Android and fundamentally Google (not it’s first attempt, Tizen replaces Bada). It has so far only been implemented on two non-phone devices (The Gear 2 wearables) and many feel it has stumbled before even leaving the starting blocks. Still, Tizen has Samsung backing it, one of the largest handset manufactures in the world and with wearables a growing "mobile" platform, the race is far from finished.

Concept
Tizen is Linux based and something of an "Android clone" with a few Samsung-isations thrown in such as Touchwiz alongside some extra ideas:

  • Widgets and icons are the same thing, in fact widgets are expanded icons that can perform differently depending on their size.
  • Notifications are presented as a grid instead of a list.

Development
HTML 5 apps are a straightforward option with some cross-platform development options already available, such as Sencha. In complete contrast to Android’s Java, developing natively for Tizen is in C or C++, so again, learning a new language and/or platform may be necessary.

Market
Reading between the lines, it looks like Tizen is squarely aimed at growing markets. Its interface guidelines and approach scream simplicity and ease of use. Tizen is currently developed in partnership with Intel, Sprint, Vodafone, Fujitsu, NEC, Panasonic and many others but hardware or apps are yet to surface. It offers few advantages over Android apart from Samsung’s existing market dominance. This would give it an easy avenue into consumer pockets, with many buying ‘Samsung’ rather than ‘Android’ and not caring or knowing the difference.

Firefox OS

Firefox OS logoFirefox OS seems to be the player that everyone wants to succeed, perhaps because Firefox is generally still so loved and recognised and lacks any major corporate backer. Much like its browser namesake, it aims to be open source and far more decentralised than many other phone OS competitors.

Design
Firefox OS claims and aims to ‘give you the power to live every moment to it’s fullest’, its design concepts are reasonably familiar and a bit of an Android/iOS mishmash. With the release of version 2.0 Firefox OS has matured and is starting to gain more of its own identity with features such as:

  • Active lock screen
  • A ‘go to top’ bar on listings screens, i.e. messages
  • A clean, ‘flat’ style UI
  • No widgets (right now)

Development
Firefox OS is Linux based (called Gonk, with its kernel based upon the Android open source project), but one of the key points of difference is that the entire user interface (Gaia) is based on web technologies utilizing the Gecko rendering engine, thus massively lowering the development barrier. Mozilla already posses a healthy developer ecosystem and support network, this continues into its mobile offering, with an already impressive array of documenting and resources available.

Market
Firefox OS currently has a few major partnerships with manufactures and telcos including LG, Telefonica, ZTE, Alcatel, Sprint, and SingTe and appears to be targeting the low/emerging end of the market with hardware prices at $25 or less. This could mean a very large market potential, or extremely low margins that make marketing and other costs hard to meet.

Others

Blackberry

Perhaps a controversial entry, but in particular app, geographical and industry markets Blackberry is still a sizeable player. If you’re working in those areas it’s still a viable platform to develop for.

Sailfish OS

Another Linux based phone OS that uses the Qt framework for its own native applications but can also run Android apps and HTML applications. Sailfish OS has some fascinating ideas for UI and hardware design but it’s still somewhat unclear regarding their intended market and plans.

Indiephone

Indiephone aims to create a fully privacy-aware and open source phone that also has a great user experience, no mean feat. It will start crowd funding this year so keep your eyes open.

Wearables

In this article we’re focussing on phone and tablet operating systems, but ‘mobile’ is a broad subject that could include any kind of portable computing device. In the coming years this will mean an increasing amount of wearable devices, from watches to bands and quantitative self measurement devices. How this market is set to play out is yet to be seen and whatever your personal opinion on wearables, it’s set to be a large and competitive market. We will be featuring a lot of content on the subject over the coming months.

What are your thoughts on the platforms noted above? What has been left out or missed?

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  • Muhammad Hussein Fattahizadeh

    Firefox OS is the best … cause mozilla put the people first.
    In technical view. The WEB is the platform. Which developer dosnt know about HTML, CSS or JavaScript. Develop native application using JavaScript functionality provided by Mozilla. Why project such as phonegap (cordova) is useful cause the web platform is easy to use.
    Who knows the web better ? mozilla or tizen or ubuntu team ?? take a loop history of many object and concepts in web.
    Open Free OS with great platform. What do you want ?

    • chrischinchilla

      Out of all of the above I think it is the most likely to succeed, but when?

  • http://www.pixelcrayons.com/ Mark Wilston

    Visited sitepoint after a long duration but found an interesting read. Article is very informative. must read………..

    • chrischinchilla

      Great to hear! Any platforms you think were missed?

  • Marco

    Nice high-level overview. For those who want to dig a little deeper: Check out the free Mobile Developer’s Guide To The Galaxy, a community-driven book with 256 pages, currently in its 14th edition. It provides an overview on the mobile market and its different technologies and platforms. Download and hardcopies available via http://www.enough.de/mdgg

    • chrischinchilla

      Awesome thanks for the link!

  • Chris Ward

    Hmm, Fire is a platform and one that I hadn’t considered. It’s sort of Android with a bunch of Amazon services added, great if you’re working with content heavy projects. I don’t think Nook is any more than a reader really.