When we’re talking about smartphone platforms, it’s VERY easy to develop a bit of tunnel vision. It’s not like there aren’t good reasons for that; you could read only about Android and iOS and still be pretty up-to-date on smartphone news. If we throw in Windows Phone for good measure, you’ve practically got all your bases covered. In reality, though, that’s just scratching the surface of the total number of platforms around.
There are already underdogs like Symbian and BlackBerry (oh, how fortunes can change) out there, and while they may not have the clout of the big boys, their millions of users make it clear that there’s still money to be made by being an “alternative” platform, whether that means catering to a specific niche of customers, or being able to do things a whole lot more cheaply than your competitors.
It looks like a couple new guys are about to land on the scene, and though I don’t expect any major upheaval in the general balance of power, it got be wondering: will next year be one in which we really see these non-mainstream smartphone platforms shine?
Before we start looking at the really out-from-left-field underdogs, lets take a moment to talk about RIM. BlackBerry 10 could be 2013′s big wildcard; there’s the well-established name, the loyal fans, and the all-important reputation as the “professional” choice in smartphone platforms. Of course, we all know RIM has had a rough couple of years, so there’s tons of pressure on it to really revitalize itself with the launch of BlackBerry 10.
I don’t expect RIM to bungle the launch so badly that it ends up fading away altogether, but if it doesn’t reverse the tide that’s currently seeing its success ebb away, the company could easily find itself in a situation similar to what we’ve heard rumored, where RIM ends up producing hardware for someone else’s platform.
But maybe RIM doesn’t need to regain its past stature in order to succeed. So long as it keeps current users happy with BB10 offerings, it should have a nice, solid position in the smartphone ecosystem. The trick is going to be not losing those users during the transition to BB10. From what we’ve heard, RIM should have some solid, though far from bleeding edge hardware designs, and as long as it can make users feel at home in the new software, maybe it will pull that off. Still, with so much against it, it’s soundly an underdog.
Now, what about the upstarts? The two to watch are going to be Tizen and Firefox OS. Tizen has emerged from what was once MeeGo, while Mozilla’s HTML5-heavy Boot 2 Gecko has taken the name of the iconic browser. Will either end up making a big splash?
I’m most optimistic about Firefox OS. The first hardware running the new platform is expected to land in Brazil, sometime in early 2013. Supposedly, Mozilla’s aiming at the bottom of the market here, with prices that will compete with feature phones. That makes me a bit concerned about performance, but even today’s low-end hardware is a serious improvement over what we had just a few years ago. Cheap devices may not be able to push HD resolutions and run console-quality games, but a platform built with realistic expectations that takes full advantage of even limited hardware could still end up shining.
Of course, there’s still the issue of apps to worry about, and getting together a strong enough development community to encourage growth. I don’t pretend to have any easy answers here; maybe the core experience will be rich enough to decrease reliance on so many third-party apps, or maybe the first-time smartphone user won’t even notice their absence. Maybe the use of open standards will attract more developers than I’m giving the project credit for. For existing smartphone users, though, Firefox OS could be a tough sell, especially in its first year out.
Tizen’s the real Hail Mary. You might not think so based on the roster of names attached to the platform, with Samsung and Intel behind it, and Acer, ASUS, and HTC rumored to be developing hardware, but I’m finding it really difficult to get excited about it. Maybe I’m just being cynical because it looks like the Android camp of manufacturers is resentful of Google and is only doing this so they can be in charge, for once.
That’s not to say that Tizen doesn’t have some interesting things going for it; the idea of a platform that’s as at-home on a smartphone as it is a notebook or even a refrigerator is intriguing, and speaks a lot to how flexibility was kept in mind during the platform’s design.
Like Firefox OS, Tizen is going to use HTML5 for its apps. The actual answer is going to be much more nuanced than this, and I don’t even have the whole story on either platform just yet, but if you were to ask me today what’s the difference between Tizen and Firefox OS, all I’d say is, “Firefox OS has a better name.”
There have been some rumors of Tizen hardware coming out this year, but next year should be when we’ll really have a chance to evaluate how it stacks up. By the end of 2013, I’m not expecting any of these platforms to have emerged as unquestionable success stories, and Tizen and Firefox OS will especially have to fight to stay above water. What I’m hoping for, though, is that even if they don’t displace any of the big boys, they’ll get enough right to force us all to take notice, and maybe rethink a few things we’ve taken for granted about the mainstream platforms.