The future of smartphones

Google Android and Apple iOS fighting
Move over, Android and iOS. You have company.

Right now, if you want to buy a smartphone you have two main options: iPhone and Android. If you’re feeling brave, there’s Windows Phone. Not much variety.

All that is about to change.

This coming year is going to see the release of new, free smartphone operating systems that seem poised to change the world of smartphones – for the better. Let’s take a look.


Ubuntu, the wildly-popular open-source operating system for computers has been spreading rumors that they’re going to release a version of the operating system for smartphones. The phones aren’t out yet but folks around the internet say they’re definitely in the works.

I think this rather clever video does a pretty good job summing it up:

It’s an interesting idea no one’s tried before: making your phone into a computer so that your data is truly always with you. You’ve also got the best of both worlds: ridiculously powerful and diverse computer programs available on a phone, and all the stuff you do on the go available on a computer.

Ubuntu android phone and desktop image
What may happen if you plug in an Ubuntu phone to a computer. Note that you can use computer apps on the phone, and phone apps on the computer.

Here’s a scenario I see happening one of these days: a library or school removes traditional operating systems from its computers. Instead, it fits docks on the computers. A patron walks up to the computer, slots her Ubuntu phone into the dock, and sees all of her files and programs – exactly customized to her – appear on the computer. The computer becomes the ultimate workstation where she can literally do anything she’s used to, including using her apps and files. Then she undocks her phone, the computer goes blank (her data isn’t stored on the computer), and she picks up exactly where she left off.

Some folks are concerned that you can’t put such a huge operating system on such a tiny device. The thing is, most people do little more than text and play Angry Birds on their mobile phones (admit it – you do too); phones are more powerful than we give them credit for. Add the fact that they’re getting stronger by the day and this issue becomes moot.

By the way, Ubuntu is also considering releasing versions of the operating system for tablets and TVs. No word yet on their plans for toasters.

Firefox OS

You may not have guessed based on the name, but the great guys who make the open-source web browser Firefox are developing a Firefox-based operating system for mobile phones. It’s currently available for testing but no actual phones will be released till next year.

Sample home screen of Firefox mobile OS
Firefox OS is built entirely on web technologies.

The goal? To create a free, open-source, mobile operating system based on standard web technologies (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript) – the same stuff that makes up websites like the one you’re currently looking at.

Because it’s open-source, anyone around the world can work on Firefox OS – from the camera app to the most fundamental code behind the scenes. What’s nice about this arrangement is that a community of volunteers decides what the operating system will be like, not a few corporate overlords.

In addition, standard web apps are first-class apps on Firefox OS. An online dictionary, for example, can become a Firefox OS app without any modification. Normally, you’d have to rewrite a program from scratch for each operating system (iOS, Android, Windows Phone – there’s 3 rewrites right there!)

Because of this, almost anything on the web can be easily harnessed for use on Firefox OS. Firefox OS, then, organizes the internet, supercharges it, and delivers it to you on a smartphone. 5 years ago the internet was just a bunch of websites – no apps. Nowadays, though, you have things from office suites to photo editors to Angry Birds available on the internet. And yes, you could take all of these things – and more – and use them in Firefox OS.

Firefox OS is already generating excitement around the globe, and phones running it will be coming soon. Mozilla, the guys who make Firefox OS, are partnering with mobile phone makers in places like Brazil; basic phones running Firefox OS will come out there in 2013.

For those of us not in Brazil, it’s not too difficult to put Firefox OS on your Android phone (they use the same core) and you can even test it out on your computer.

So what now?

For now, iOS and Android reign supreme, and Windows Phone is that other thing people talk about for some variety. But come 2013 I expect some shakeups in the smartphone market in the form of Ubuntu and Firefox OS.

The only question now is which new operating system I’ll put on my phone.

Published by

Neel Mehta

Harvard College. Web developer. Sometime philosopher. Baseball junkie.

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