Alongside myriad new tablets and phones, Mobile World Congress 2013 also gave us our first real look at Mozilla's Firefox OS and the Samsung and Intel collaboration, Tizen OS.
While Android might dominate the smartphone landscape today, it's only five years old. I can recall plenty of headlines in 2007 and 2008 that doubted whether there was room for yet another player in the space. At that time, RIM was a powerhouse, the iPhone was brand-new, Palm's WebOS was in development, and Microsoft's Windows Mobile was slipping into obscurity.
My, how things have changed. Now the question is, it can happen again? Will Firefox OS or Tizen OS affect Android or the smartphone landscape?
Cutting a piece of the smartphone pie
I predict that both will find success in developing markets and could even prove to be a bee in the Microsoft Windows Phone 8 bonnet. In fact, the definition of success could be interpreted differently for those involved. With smartphone activations rising all the time, even a small piece of the pie might be considered tasty.
I'm not entirely sure how Mozilla plans to monetize its open-source platform; Mozilla doesn't have search and mobile advertising to fall back on. Nevertheless, there are at least 18 handset makers and carriers who have pledged support for it. Really, who could fault any company for at least sampling the new goods?
There are already four such phones on the way -- the Alcatel One Touch Fire, the ZTE Open, the Geeksphone Keon, and the Geeksphone Peak -- and, I suspect, a handful more before the year is out. As of now, these devices are nowhere near as powerful as today's typical Android, but that may not matter to the average consumer. We shouldn't expect much Firefox OS in the United States, though it's possible the bigger players are taking a "wait and see" approach.
LG also did a bit of hedging this week when it added its name to Mozilla's list of partners. LG even gave WebOS a new lease on life when it announced a licensing deal for the nearly dead platform. Currently offering a number of Google TV sets, it's unclear how WebOS fits into the big scheme of things. Though I guess that it can't hurt to try new things every once in a while.
Even so, I get the feeling that for now LG's bread is buttered by Google and that Firefox OS may be employed on devices released in secondary markets. Based on its diverse Mobile World Congress announcements, LG has a lot of Android momentum right now, so I don't expect the company to change things up too much.
Samsung plays the field
Samsung, for its part, seems to be doing a little bit of everything these days. It introduced the Galaxy Note 8 in Barcelona, but it saved the reveal of the Galaxy S4 for an exclusive event on March 14. And though the company told CNET that it would pass on Firefox, it also said that it would be the first manufacturer to sell a Tizen phone come July. What about Bada, you ask? Well, a Korean news outlet said that Sammy would fold its own Bada OS into Tizen.
The first images of Tizen OS are reminiscent of Android, most likely due to Samsung. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if future Galaxy experiences looked less like Android and more like Samsung. Should Samsung find success with the platform it may be possible to peel off a few Android users who have grown to use services such as Media Hub. In the big scheme of things, I imagine Samsung will create its own experience that looks the same on Android and Tizen.
It's too early in the game to forecast whether Tizen will affect its Android efforts, but whether Tizen makes it to the United States will make a big difference. While the platform has already drawn support from carriers around the globe, only Sprint has expressed interest for the U.S. market. And carriers aside, I'm more anxious to see which OEMs consider Tizen. It's hard to imagine a company like HTC, LG, or Sony, willing to use a platform created by a competitor.
What's more, Samsung's new Knox is another signal that much attention is being paid to a broader consumer experience. Its bring-your-own-device (BYOD) solution would work well for anyone who wants to want to use the same phone for work and personal use. Available for Android today, the feature might be available with other OSes like Tizen down the road. If that happens, Samsung would no doubt continue as one of Google's strongest Android partners, but the two companies may dance a little less frequently.
Looking ahead, we may be in for more land grabs as hardware makers acquire software companies. We've seen this over the last few years with Apple, HTC, Samsung, and others. We've also seen jockeying from Amazon, Google, and other companies who scoop up services and apps. While some of these moves happen quietly and without much consequence, others are more overt and telling. One thing seems certain: nobody feels safe in this space. Rather, no one should feel safe.
In the short term, Firefox OS and Tizen will build a bit of steam; however, don't look for either to overtake RIM (especially following the launch of BlackBerry 10) or Windows Phone soon. And don't event think about a threat to iOS or Android. But then again, the growth of smartphone use in emerging markets is creating more competition. Android, after all, certainly surpassed the expectations of its early naysayers.
I am only too pleased that both of these new platforms are open-source as that should lead to more innovation. Here's to hoping that Android and iOS get some stiff competition in the future. Who doesn't want a less expensive smartphone that does incredibly cool stuff?