Mobility and Open Source: Going Beyond Android

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Apart from Android, there aren't any major open source competitors as of today when it comes to portable devices such as smartphones and tablets. However, this is set to change at a steady pace, the cut-throat competition is set to become even more fierce. These competing platforms will matter when you decide your BYOD plans for the next calendar year. What is worth noting is that most of the following upcoming open source mobile platforms are backed by strong brands which have had huge success elsewhere.


Talking of Android, the current fears about allowing their use in a BYOD scenario present a stark irony. When it comes to PCs/servers, many businesses switch to Linux because of security concerns. However, on portable devices, the same Linux kernel, which forms the core of Android, is at the receiving end of malware attacks. It is interesting to note how open source is perceived here in mobile devices. Gnu/Linux which can be usually obtained free of charge for PCs and servers is still considered to be relatively safe whereas a paid piece of hardware running the same open source kernel becomes a malware magnet. Like there are several distributions available for Gnu/Linux, there are also several versions of Android in use, but for PCs and servers the distro-specific differences have not become as much of a security pain point as the fragmentation in Android. Will the upcoming open source mobile platforms change this irony? Let's take a look.

1. Firefox OS

As discussed in another article in this issue, we now have Chromebooks, which are full-sized notebooks that are built around a web browser at the centre. Similarly, we now also have Firefox OS, that builds upon web technologies in general in order to build a complete OS for smartphones.

Although Mozilla (or for that matter any OEM) is yet to announce the official release of Firefox OS devices in India, one such smartphone, the ZTE Open, is now available on eBay for Rupees 6,990. This price makes it a good candidate for a device which can be afforded to be owned by most employees.

Why does it matter?

The official rollout is yet to happen in India. However, employees wanting to buy high-end feature phones (such as the Nokia Asha 311, which is priced at Rupees 6,300) might find it tempting to go own a low-end smartphone instead, if the currently offered price of the ZTE Open for sale on eBay is anything to go by. The specifications of such feature phones are less than what the Firefox OS devices have. Mozilla is positioning Firefox OS devices as a person's `first smartphone'. No Windows Phone/BB 10 phone/iPhone is available at this price, and hence employees that are concerned about security issues with Android might want to try out a smartphone platform that is new and affordable. From an IT management perspective, supporting Firefox OS devices may not turn out to be as big a headache as dealing with the fragmentation in Android versions being used, unless Firefox OS too ends up having the same fate. Currently, device manufacturers include but are not limited to ZTE, Alcatel and LG.

The ZTE Open is a 3G smartphone that measures 114mm × 62mm × 12.5mm, has a battery of 1200mAH and a 3.5 inches' screen. It uses a single-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor with the MSM7225A chipset and has features like Wi-fi (802.11b/g/n), Bluetooth 2.1, accelerometer and ambient light sensors and A-GPS.


2a. Ubuntu for smartphones

As like Firefox, Ubuntu needs no introduction. It is a popular desktop OS that now offers a touch-based phone interface, using gestures from all four edges of the screen like in Windows 8. Ubuntu for phones can be installed on smartphones such as the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 4, including support for calls, SMS and Wi-Fi, apart from functioning as a PC operating system.

Phones that ship with Ubuntu pre-installed are not yet released. However, Canonical has provided a table of the specifications that a Ubuntu phone needs to have.

Why does it matter?

Ubuntu is taking a two-pronged strategy here by offering separate specifications for entry-level smartphones and what it terms as `superphones'. Ubuntu has been known for working on entry-level hardware on PCs for years, so it will probably do well on low-end smartphones too, and now it has added another jewel in it's crown by offering a unique PC experience on superphones when docked with a monitor, keyboard and mouse. This is something which probably dwarfs something as innovative as the Raspberry Pi when thinking from a functionality perspective although the cost will be definitely higher by multiple times.

So, from a BYOD perspective, while entry-level smartphone users in the organisation will be able to make use of Ubuntu, high-end `superphone' users will benefit by being able to carry a PC in their pocket without any need for laptops/tablets. You would just need to have monitors, keyboards and mice for each such user in office, all of which cost less than a total of Rupees 10,000 per head for most office scenarios and then you can have employees bring in their Ubuntu superphones to work. This also makes things simpler for the IT department because it's the same Ubuntu OS which they need to support.


2b. Ubuntu for tablets

Apart from smartphones, Ubuntu now also offers a similar touch-based tablet interface that scales to different screens and usage scenarios. The Ubuntu tablet works like a thin client that can be managed with the same tools as any Ubuntu server or desktop.

3. Sailfish

Sailfish is another runner in the competition for becoming an alternative open source mobile OS and heavily relies on the Qt platform in order to deliver a good user experience with Linux at the core. The team behind the development of Sailfish are mainly ex-Nokia employees. More information can be obtained at .

4. Tizen

Tizen is a software platform for multiple device categories such as smartphones, tablets, netbooks, in-vehicle infotainment devices, and smart TVs. The Tizen project resides within the Linux Foundation and is governed by a Technical Steering Group. Tizen's development is primarily based on HTML5 and related web technologies.

5. Steam OS

The popular gaming platform Steam (by Valve Software) is planning to expand it's presence onto hardware such as TVs, game controllers, and the so-called `Steam Machine'. This may not be relevant from a BYOD perspective because these are not devices which are meant to be portable/carried-in to office in most business scenarios, but given the huge userbase that Steam has, combined with the backing of the video game industry, it does emerge as a powerful contender for an open source operating system which is not meant for PCs. Time will tell whether the `Steam Machine' turns out to be Steam's own competitor to the likes of the PlayStation(including the PlayStation portable), XBox 360, etc.