The smartphone ecosystem today has two dominant players: Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems. A late entrant, Android, has been quick to catch up with iOS and the Open operating system only seems to be surging ahead.

Given the success of Android, many other Open Source paradigms are being floated, most notably the Free and Open Source projects Firefox (of browser fame) and Ubuntu that are re-making their debut this year in the commercial smartphone segment. Together, these projects that have been successful in the technology segments they currently operate in could perhaps help break into the combined monopoly of Apple and Google in the smartphone segment.

Canonical’s Ubuntu is trying to market the idea that smartphones must be as capable as one’s PC and are trying to port the Ubuntu OS from the desktop with minimum changes so that it can offer a unified experience across all platforms. Mozilla’s Firefox OS too targets the low-end phones (in the smartphone segment) with an all HTML5 approach, implying that every application that would run on the smartphone will offer a website like experience.

PC out of a smartphone

Ubuntu is among the most popular Linux-based desktop operating systems today. The backlash Ubuntu has had to face with its changes in the user interface since its release in April, 2011, has now evolved into the more stable “Unity” interface — a futuristic, touch-oriented graphical user interface. Unity, as the name suggests, was projected as the thread weaving and unifying all the computing environments — PCs, laptops, tablets, TVs and smartphones that run on Ubuntu. The smartphone link had been missing, and now Canonical is all geared up to flex its muscles by porting Ubuntu on the smartphones.

Mark Shuttleworth, in a virtual keynote address to the user community, in January 2013, presented Canonical’s ideas for Ubuntu on smartphones. At the Consumer Electronics Show 2013, Ubuntu OS was demonstrated on Google Nexus.

Ubuntu’s Unity interface is what Canonical is betting big on. The Unity interface, even on desktops yields more space for users with less focus on permanent navigation or menu options. This again if ported well on smartphones will be a plus. The navigation on Unity will be the same across all platforms, unlike Apple’s iOS or Windows OS, which differ on platforms to match up to the hardware constraints. Mr. Shuttleworth describes the Unity interface on laptops, TVs and smartphone as “Individually great in their own right, and coherent as a family”.

Applications are already in plenty for the desktop platform from the Ubuntu Software Center, and Ubuntu has invited developers to write apps for the mobile platform using the Webkit. Canonical has for long had the vision of getting Ubuntu on the mobile platform, and in small steps they have inched close, ready to take the dip in the deluge.

Web all the way

The second most promising entrant in this segment is the Mozilla Foundation’s latest attempt to build an operating system that’s as free as the Web. Mozilla believes that Android is not as Open Source an ecosystem as Google claims and that most design decisions are made by Google and pushed down to the developers and that often the source code of the OS is not released after the devices are shipped. Mozilla claims that Firefox OS will provide an alternative to these “walled gardens”.

Mozilla Foundation started the operating system in the name of Boot to Gecko, now more commonly called the Firefox OS. This is an all HTML5, Javascript and CSS framework, and truly Open Source. Technically, the biggest challenge for a Web-based operating system is to gain access to the hardware such as telephony or camera. For, in conventional browsing environments the Web requests are handled by the native operating system like iOS, Android or Windows, creating an abstraction between hardware and the Web framework. Using Javascript and Web Application Programming Interface (API) Boot to Gecko has already been able to demonstrate most of the functions by directly accessing system resources.

The first prototype of this was demonstrated in the Consumer Electronics Show 2013, on a ZTE-made smartphone. The official statement of Mozilla is that Firefox OS will be in its final form in a couple weeks, ready to be ported and released in the market.