By Lawrence Lundy, consultant, ICT, Frost & Sullivan

With Android and iOS controlling over 90 percent of the smartphone operating system market, it is extremely difficult to make a dent in the space.

Take Windows Phone 8 – if a company of Microsoft’s size and resources is unable to disrupt this market with the backing of leading device manufacturers such as Nokia, what chance does everybody else have?

With Mozilla launching Firefox OS in early July – and Sailfish and Ubuntu to follow later in 2013 – we are about to find out.  

What makes Firefox OS completely unique is that instead of using “native” code for the OS, it uses open web standards – HTML, CSS and JavaScript – with no proprietary software or technology.

By using web standards, anyone who can build a website can essentially build an app for Firefox OS. As well as attracting a lot of developers, this will also change the economics of app development, reducing the barriers to entry and potentially opening up a new wave of creativity and innovation in apps.

Mozilla has tremendous support from partners across the industry, with 18 network operators on board. On the OEM side, ZTE and Alcatel have already launched with Huawei, LG and Sony also committed.

Mozilla is aiming to provide an OEM-, carrier- and user-friendly low-cost alternative to Android. It will mainly target emerging markets that are currently dominated by feature phones or cheap Android devices.

Sailfish OS – developed by Jolla, a Finnish-based start-up – is a platform that has emerged from Nokia’s abandoned MeeGo project. Finnish mobile network operator DNA will be the first operator in the world to offer the handset with a Q4 2013 launch expected.

Like Firefox OS, Sailfish is Linux-based and open-source, making it completely open to modification by carriers and OEMs. On the app front, Sailfish will be compatible with Android, enabling customers to download applications directly from the Google Play store.

What makes Jolla (and, by extension, Sailfish) different is its Chinese focus. It has a HQ in Hong Kong and a unique relationship with D.Phone, the largest mobile chain retailer in China.

D.Phone will not only sell Sailfish-powered phones, but as part of the Sailfish Alliance, it will be able to add standards and code to the OS. It may be difficult to challenge Google and Apple on a global basis, so starting with China is a smart strategy.

Ubuntu Touch OS is a variant of Ubuntu developed by Canonical for smartphones and tablets. Devices are expected to be ship in early 2014, with EE, Deutsche Telekom, Korea Telecom, Telecom Italia, among the operators that are already on board. To avoid any issues relating to a lack of apps, the system will be compatible with Android.

Ubuntu is targeting emerging markets, specifically India and China, where Ubuntu is already well known. They will also target the enterprise space, as Ubuntu is already used extensively in corporate IT departments for their cloud and PC environments. Ubuntu wants to be the first smartphone that when docked can turn into full PC; the aim is to make a “device agnostic” OS that can run on any connected device (smart-watch, smartphone, tablet, smart TV, etc).

Each of the challengers has a unique strategy that could help it to break into the smartphone market: Firefox focuses on a total web-based experience, Sailfish is targeting the Chinese market, and Ubuntu it hedging its bets on emerging markets and an ambition to become an OS for all connected devices.

These platforms are being heavily backed by network operators and OEMs, as open-source platforms represent their best chance to wrestle control back from Apple and Google. This is why there is so much support for these untested platforms, which are very much the “anything but Apple and Google” approach.

So, will these challengers disrupt the mobile operating system duopoly? Unlikely in mature markets, but it will be the emerging markets where we will see real gains by Mozilla, Sailfish and Ubuntu.

We may well see Mozilla develop into a strong third place player on the back of global carrier support, overtaking Blackberry and Windows Phone in the process. Sailfish may see success in China, but it is difficult to see the platform becoming globally relevant. Ubuntu is unlikely attract mass support, other than from security and cost-conscious enterprises.

That being said, this battle is just for one, albeit important and lucrative, product category – the war to dominate all connected device categories and the whole spectrum of the Internet of Things has just started.

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