When it comes to smartphones, consumers have an array of choices from Apple to… well, Android.
The impression you get stepping into most phone carriers’ showrooms is that the programmers behind Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android are driving most of the innovation in smartphones. You’ll find few phones on display that run other software systems.
Research firm Gartner says 94 percent of smartphones sales last year were either iPhones or Android devices. Windows Phone and BlackBerry devices made up another 5 percent combined.
But what about the remaining 1 percent? They are the wannabes such as Firefox and Sailfish —and many of them are introducing innovative advancements in features and functions.
I had a chance to try out some of these little-known systems at the Mobile World Congress wireless show in Barcelona, Spain, this week. Many of these systems aren’t even available in the U.S., where I live. Although I don’t see myself replacing my Samsung Android phone even if I could, some of these alternative phones have features I envy.
Firefox OS, from Mozilla
Firefox is better known for its Web browser. Now, the people behind it are trying to adapt it to run smartphones targeted at emerging markets. Firefox OS launched last summer with three phones, priced around $50 to $70. They are in available in 15 countries, but not in the U.S.
At the Barcelona show, Mozilla unveiled plans to expand to additional markets in Latin America and eastern Europe, while ZTE announced two new models. Chipmaker Spreadtrum Communications Inc. also announced a blueprint for any phone maker to make $25 smartphones.
The home screen and icons resemble what’s found on iPhones and Android.
Where Firefox OS starts to differ is in apps. With iPhones and Android, you go to an app store to get new apps. With Firefox OS, you typically have instant access to all apps, the same way you can visit a website for the first time without installing anything.
The catch is you need an Internet connection to use apps that aren’t on your phone, but many apps need that access anyway to refresh news, social networks or restaurant guides.
Firefox OS also has a universal search for all content on the phone and online.
There’s another neat feature coming to Firefox OS. Swipe from the left side of the screen to flip through recent apps one by one, just like hitting the back button on a Web browser.
Sailfish OS, from Jolla
Sailfish is based on the Linux operating system and comes from the Finnish company Jolla (pronounced “yolla”). Former Nokia employees created Jolla after that struggling cellphone maker abandoned an in-house operating system in favor of Microsoft’s Windows Phone.
There’s only one phone out so far, and it’s sold only in Europe for 399 euros ($546). But Jolla has ambitions to reach Russia and Asia and to partner with other phone makers.
Jolla Ltd. also announced last week …continued »