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On the Horizon in Mobile Computing

Ubuntu Linux and Firefox Company Logos

Tech is moving faster than ever and what we might still consider novel is, in fact, quite dated.  Do you realize that the iPhone and iPad mobile iOS operating system is close to six years old?  And Google’s Android is not much younger than that.  While both companies continue to innovate marginally, it’s safe to say we know roughly what to expect from both platforms, being as entrenched as they are.  Is the mobile market then ready for fresh competition or are newcomers (and a couple of “oldcomers”) just a flash in the pan against Apple and Google?

First, let’s look at these “oldcomers” I’ve mentioned, specifically Windows and Blackberry.  Windows may still be the main player when it comes to PC desktops and laptops, but it is obvious the dominance of that hardware is waning while mobile computing continues to grow and grow.  Microsoft, being Microsoft, is continuing its practice of spreading itself thin in arenas already dominated by other companies in the mistaken belief that it is flexible enough to be everything to everyone, be it operating system, search engine, email provider, gaming company, etc., etc. The recently released slew of Windows operating systems—Windows 8, RT, and Phone—is evidence of this.  Their mixed reviews tell tales of a half-baked platform struggling to stay afloat in a sea of iPhone and Android (I’ve GOT to stop mixing my metaphors).  But as long as PCs stick around, so will Microsoft, and while they’re sticking around they’ll likely pick up a few mobile converts.  A few.  

The other oldcomer is Research in Motion (RIM), who have wisely renamed themselves Blackberry after pretty much the only product they are known for or make.  When the iPhone was released in 2007, it was seen as less of a tool and more of a toy.  The lack of secure email, security features, mobile office tools, and physical keyboard did not immediately endear it to the business world, and RIM felt assured that their product would continue to flourish.  They didn’t count on just how quickly the iPhone would evolve for both business and leisure uses, not to mention the public’s increasing comfort with virtual, on-screen keyboards.  Their glacial pace of change, management upsets, delayed releases, and overall refusal to acknowledge that the public actually does know what it wants means that it is now all-but-dead and it has one last chance to revive itself: Blackberry 10.  The BB10 OS looks very slick and may buy the company a few more years, but it’s not doing anything we haven’t seen before from Apple and Google.  What once was the mobile computing industry standard has now been reduced to a “me, too!” product that probably won’t change anything, especially if the company chooses to rest on this particular laurel and not continue to push forward in a radical way.  I don't have much hope for them.

But, what ho?  We see two newcomers on the horizon, at least to the mobile market: Ubuntu and Mozilla.  Both organizations are actually well-established in the software world.  Ubuntu develops the world’s most popular and arguably the easiest-to-use version of Linux.  Mozilla develops the popular open-source Web browser Firefox, along with the email client Thunderbird.  Both organizations are close to releasing their own brands of open-source mobile operating systems.  Ubuntu for phones and tablets and the new Firefox OS look to bring true open-source platforms to mobile.  While it can be said that Android is an open-source project, Google still retains a great deal of control over what code is released and when it is released.  Both Ubuntu and Firefox are known for releasing open-source code that has been spun-off into a variety of different operating systems and Web browsers.  It is likely that mobile operating systems developed by them would result in a much richer and more diverse mobile software ecosystem that would also encourage greater innovation on the part of Apple and Google as they witness new standards being developed outside their spheres of control.  Based on screenshots, Firefox OS looks to be more conventional than Ubuntu in terms of being an iOS/Android look-alike, but neither OS has been released to the general public yet, so I’ll have to reserve judgement on that front.  

The big question is, will either operating system make a dent in the iOS/Android shared monopoly of mobile computing?  I very much doubt it, but that’s really not the point.  The point, as I mentioned above, is innovation.  The release of two new and highly-customizable open-source mobile operating systems will be embraced with open arms by millions of talented and driven community developers from around the entire world.  They will take these projects in new, brilliant, and previously unimagined directions because that’s just what happens when quality projects are open-sourced.  That creativity will bleed through to other products, including those by Apple, Google, and, maybe (maybe) Microsoft.  And, who knows?  Maybe we will see some new product arise to give genuine competition to iOS/Android. If you’d asked me 10 years ago who the leading smartphone manufacturer would be today, I probably would have told you Palm or Research in Motion, but certainly not Apple!  So we’ll see what happens, but what I can promise you is this: we’re in for a whole lot more exciting technology.  

And then there's that Google Glass thing . . . more on that as it develops.