January 16, 2013, 3:49 PM — In the next 12 months, smartphones with five new operating systems are scheduled to go on sale, leaning on Web technologies and improved user interfaces to try and make a dent in the dominance of Apple's iOS and Google's Android.
In two weeks, Research In Motion will launch the first two smartphones based on its new operating system, BlackBerry 10, hoping to turn around its ailing fortunes. Launching a new operating system and succeeding will be difficult, but that hasn't dissuaded RIM nor the other vendors coming out with smartphone OSes: Mozilla, Canonical, Finnish upstart Jolla and backers of Tizen.
"I think it is the natural cycle of how open markets work; a few dominant players will get a grip on an industry and people will decide they have too much power and start looking for alternatives," said Neil Mawston, executive director at Strategy Analytics.
Smartphone vendors and operators should also benefit from having more options.
"From an operator point-of-view it will help, because it will result in more competition. Their difficulty will be to have the right device, the right device brand and retail channel, which makes a big difference," Orange vice president Arnauld Blondet said.
A key part of the new operating systems will be their user interfaces, which don't just aim to replicate the iOS experience, but rather add features to improve usability.
The UIs of the new OSes share some of the same principles, including a greater use of the edges of the screen and a lack of physical buttons.
For example, BlackBerry 10 and Canonical's Ubuntu for phones use similar gestures to reveal more information on the left side of the screen. Ubuntu for phones shows a list of applications, while BlackBerry 10 displays a unified inbox called the Hub. There, users can open, reply to and send Facebook messages without having to open an application.
Another example of this is in Jolla's Sailfish OS, where users can pull down the screen by sliding a finger down to reveal more menu options and information.
"Regardless of whether or not they are successful, I would bet the features we see on these platforms will have an impact on the market and turn up elsewhere," Geoff Blaber, analyst at CCS Insight, said.
Microsoft has already shown there is room for development when it comes to smartphone user interfaces with Windows Phone, but the limited success of the OS has also illustrated the importance of applications.
To make it easier for developers, all five platforms will have extensive support for HTML5. Mozilla has taken this the furthest, as the idea with its Firefox OS is to have all user-accessible software running on the phone be a Web app.
But the others are also taking the technology to heart.