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Beyond Android and iOS: The top six mobile operating system alternatives

There is a world of operating systems beyond Android and iOS. Will any of them lock down third place? Can any of them give Google or Apple a run for the top spots?
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Topic: Mobility
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1 of 7 Steven Vaughan-Nichols/ZDNet

It's a mobile, mobile, mobile world

When you look at Mary Meeker's predictions for the Internet, anyone can see that the future of personal computing belongs to smartphones and tablets. Beginning in 2010, their sales left PC sales behind in their dust. By 2013, over four times as many smartphones were being sold as PCs, both desktop and laptop. Tablets were right behind smartphones. Looking ahead, Meeker smartphone and tablets only increasing their lead.

On these devices, Android rules followed by Apple iOS. The real battle is for third place. Who will take the number three spot is still an open question. Here are the real contenders. I've placed them in the order of what I consider their chances are of taking the third spot.

There are some that are no longer in the race at all. WebOS, for example, looked like a contender at one time, but it was pulled from mobile devices by its one time owner HP. Under its new owner, LG, webOS has found a new life as a Smart TV operating system, but LG seems to have no interest in entering the crowded smartphone and tablet market.

Now, with no further adieu, let's start with the least likely of the mobile operating systems to make a splash in the coming years.

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2 of 7 Steven Vaughan-Nichols/ZDNet

BlackBerry OS 10

If BlackBerry as a  company had not stood pat when it owned the business phone market, we'd be talking today about whether anyone could ever catch them. Fortunately for Apple and Google, BlackBerry blew it. By early 2013, when the company's QNX embedded Unix-based BlackBerry 10 OS finally arrived it was too little, too late.

I think it says it all, the BlackBerry's greatest hope for gaining fans is by making it easier to install and use Android apps on it.

The chances that BlackBerry OS 10 will ever be number three? I'd say one in a hundred. Chances that BlackBerry will finally close its door by the end of 2016? I'd say one in five.

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3 of 7 Steven Vaughan-Nichols/ZDNet

Sailfish OS

Sailfish OS is perhaps the least well-known of the major mobile operating system contenders.

This Linux-based operating systems uses an open-source Qt-based user interface. It's shepherded by Jolla, a Finnish company. This group of former Nokia engineers and software developers had been working on MeeGo, a Linux smartphone operating system, after Nokia decided to abandon it in favor of Windows Phone.

Sailfish OS is a likeable enough Linux-based system and its been getting some support from phone vendors. Still, at best, it looks like Sailfish will have to be content with a minute share of the market. I rank the odds that Sailfish OS can take third place as no better than one in a hundred. On the other hand, I do thank Sailfish OS will find a niche and stick around for at least a few years.

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Firefox OS

Mozilla, best known for its Firefox Web browser, wants to be a smartphone power. I know — it seems unlikely to me too, but Mozilla is quite serious about making Firefox OS a real contender in the mobile space.

Mozilla's plan is to give users not so much a smartphone or tablet experience as it is to give them a Web identity that they can access from any Firefox OS-powered device. In a way, it's not too dissimilar from Google's Chromebook idea, where the device and it's operating system is far less important than what you can do with its access to Web services.

Google, however, is going after the moribund PC market, while Mozilla's taking on the growing smartphone and tablet world. That said, Firefox OS already boasts thousands of applications, and is available in multiple markets and claims that they and a chip partner have cleared the way to introduce a $25 smartphone.

All of this makes me think Firefox OS has a real shot of mattering. Still, I can only rate its odds of taking third place as no more than one in twenty.

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Mark Shuttleworth with an Ubuntu Touch-enabled tablet

Want to know a little secret that Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical and Ubuntu's founder, knows about to make a mobile operating system popular? Get the major phone carriers and hardware vendors on board first, then release.

While I happen to think Ubuntu Touch may very well be the next hot smartphone and tablet operating system thanks to its interface and its idea of making one operating system that will work on all platforms, I know that simply being technically cool isn't enough to make a product a success. If it were, we'd all been using Betamax during the '90s instead of VHS on our VCRs.

No, what matters is both being technically good and powerful business partnerships. With agreements in place with Verizon, T-Mobile, Vodafone, and Deutsche Telekom, I think Ubuntu Touch has a one in four shot at taking the third spot.

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Samsung's Tizen-powered Gear smartwatches

Tizen is a curious case. It's a Linux-based system, but for practical purposes, it's tied to only one company: its parent Samsung. Canonical, Mozilla, and Jolla all work more closely with their partners.

At the same time, Samsung, after Apple, is the leading smartphone vendor in the world and the leading Android hardware company. So why has Samsung just released its first Tizen phone and has made it the foundation of its Gear smartwatch when they're already doing so well with Android?

I don't know. It's not like you can't twist Android around for your own purposes. Samsung has done that for years and Amazon has shown on its tablets you can make your own product-specific version of Android.

If this were any other company, I'd rate Tizen's chances very low. But, Samsung seems serious about it and with their market share they can make carriers, independent software vendors (ISVs), and users all pay attention. Therefore, with some reluctance, I give Tizen odds of one in three of taking the brass ring.

That said, I can also see Samsung pulling the plug on Tizen at any time. It will be interesting to see how its future plays out.

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Windows Phone 8.1

I have no love for Windows Phone. I've always found it to be more annoying than useful. But, I can tell a hawk from a handsaw and an operating system with some popularity from one that just has the potential for popularity. Today, albeit with a mere 3 percent market share, Windows Phone is in third place.

With such a small percentage of users, it's also quite possible for Windows Phone can drop to fourth place or even lower. On the other hand, Windows 8.1 looks more promising than earlier versions. Microsoft has never hit a home run in mobile devices, but you do have to give them credit: The company keeps trying, and this is their best effort yet. 

Or, maybe Microsoft will just give up on it, and go for Android. I'm not joking.

Thanks to patent licensing, Microsoft already makes most of its mobile operating system revenue from Android, and I'm not the only one who's noticed that Microsoft, via its Nokia subsidiary, is already making Android phones.

So, I'm left making Windows Phone the favorite in staying in third place—I can't even imagine a world where it could rise to second — at odds of one to two.

As I've written this piece, what really strikes me is that while Android and iOS are clearly the top two, there are really all kinds of possibilities in how the race for third will end up resolving. I really could see my current two favorites — Samsung and Microsoft — both moving to pure Android plays and then the race for third really would become wide open. It's going to be interesting to watch.

Place your bets now!

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