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The Tizen smartphone flopped -- and open source is to blame

Galen Gruman | July 30, 2014
A parade of failed open source smartphone OSes should cause the open source community to rethink its mobile strategy.

Open source mobile OSes don't move the needle
Then there's the market reality: None of these open source mobile operating systems brings anything to the table that isn't already there. My hands-on looks at the Tizen-powered Samsung Zand Firefox OS-powered ZTE Open show that lack of compelling capability.

The big reason is that they rely on HTML5, making them essentially browser OSes that run Web apps, with a few extensions to handle the smartphone's hardware. But Web apps aren't that good.

Google's been working on them for a long time and still struggles to make them as capable asf a native app, as a comparison of Google Docs to Microsoft Office shows. HTML5, even with the libraries now available, simply isn't as capable as a "real" OS. You can see that reality in Microsoft's Web version of Office and Apple's Web version of iWork. They're all getting better, so maybe one day that'll change -- Google's Android-Chrome OS convergence strategy is banking on it -- but not this year or next year.

Being based on HTML5 means that the underlying hardware can be cheaper than what runs Android, iOS, or Windows Phone. Ubuntu Touch, Firefox OS, and Sailfish are all aimed at the developing world, where most people are really poor and can't afford a $150-to-$250 smartphone like the Motorola Moto E (a perfectly capable Android device if you don't need LTE), much less a $500-to-$800 device like an Apple iPhone 5s, BlackBerry Z10, or Samsung Galaxy S5.

So they hope by having a free OS that runs on weak hardware that they can get huge volumes of $40-to-$75 devices in the market. The problem is that Chinese, Indian, and other mainly Asian manufacturers are doing the same with older versions of AOSP, selling the equivalent of Android Gingerbread devices -- which can do more than HTML5 "OS" smartphones can. Plus, they sell Android devices for the middle and upper classes, so poor buyers can see a path forward to better devices as their economic fortunes improve. Supporting people's aspirations for a better life is a powerful factor that a bargain-basement mentality doesn't satisfy.

Microsoft recently licensed Windows Phone for free, though its hardware requirements mean its price range will be in the low hundreds of dollars, aimed at the same middle class that more modern Android versions address and that Apple is dabbling in with its sales of older iPhone models in some countries.

Where this leaves the open source mobile OSes is at the very basic entry level in terms of hardware, apps, and services. That's a tough sell anywhere. It may be better than nothing, but it's not what people really want. As hardware gets cheaper (it always does), Android and perhaps Windows Phone and iOS will get the sales in emerging markets. They may cost a little more, but buyers know they will do more and likely last longer, making them a better investment for their scarce dollars.


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