Ever since Apple launched the iPhone and Google responded with Android, vendors and open projects have dreamed of breaking the smartphone operating system duopoly and establishing a ‘third way’. So far, these efforts have failed, whether they came from giant players (Microsoft Windows Mobile), established mobile majors (BlackBerry OS or Samsung-backed Tizen), operators (LiMo) or open communities (Firefox and Canonical).
Of course, Huawei is now being pressurized by US hostilities to develop its own OS (see separate item), and could establish a major base in China, though despite the weaker position of Google and Apple relative to western markets, an ‘all-Chinese’ smartphone OS has yet failed to make big impact, despite the efforts of giants like Alibaba and Baidu.
And start-ups continue to pursue the dream of succeeding where so many have failed. One of the most persistent has been Sailfish, created by a company called Jolla, formed in Finland by former Nokia exectives. This has been through several changes of strategy and not achieved large-scale uptake, but its latest hope is to become the basis of a Russian bid for mobile OS independence.
And now a new start-up, KaiOS, is taking a similar line, aiming to provide a powerful, accessible system that could be adopted as a default by major markets, such as India, where Android is not yet well-established, or where there are large numbers of unconnected users still.
The firm recently raised a second round of funding, worth $50m and led by Cathay Innovation, and has raised $70m to date. Despite the potential threat to the expansion of Google’s Android implementation in emerging markets, the search giant actually participated in both funding rounds for KaiOS, so perhaps sees it as a possible future partner or complementary platform (Google’s own stripped-down platforms for emerging economies, particularly India, have had limited impact so far). Other significant participants in the second round are device maker TCL, Chinese owner of the Alcatel brand, and Orange, a significant operator in emerging markets, especially in Africa.
KaiOS’s marketing director Tim Metz told Mobile World Live that the company is targeting the 3bn people in the world who still lack Internet connectivity. He said a key strategy is to work closely with operators in “product innovation, our roadmap, how we set up the business model”, and the start-up has already worked closely with Reliance Jio in India, and now hopes Orange will open doors in some African markets.
KaiOS promises smartphone functionality for a featurephone form factor and price, with social media apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook pre-loaded as well as Google Assistant and GPS/Maps. While the core product is an OS which could be deployed on any hardware, it has its own reference designs and handsets to try to seed uptake – even the GPS model costs only about $30. A great deal of effort has been put into local customization and into the user experience, the firm says, to ensure it is intuitive and accessible even for people with limited literacy, with no previous experience of electronic devices, or with any type of alphabet and script.
All this sounds logical and reasonable, but also remarkably reminiscent of other initiatives to create an open alternative to Android and iOS. In most cases, the aim has been to get operators on board, especially in countries like India where MNOs have the biggest influence on mobile user experiences and are the largest channel to market. And targeting first-time users or those looking to upgrade from a featurephone is a good way to avoid head-to-head collision with Apple and with some of the biggest Android handset vendors, which tend to focus on the slightly higher margins of the midrange as well as the highly competitive high end.
Important as operator backing is, these challenger operating systems must get the support of large handset makers, in a market which is consolidating. Huawei is developing its own OS; Samsung has Android variants for its low end phones. There are smartphone makers, such as Oppo or India’s Spice and MicroMAX, which are targeting the unconnected with low cost devices, but they tend to use their own stripped-down versions of Android. KaiOS will need to sign up several of these large suppliers to succeed in achieving the scale which is essential to any OS, to build a sufficiently wide community of users and developers to make it desirable for large MNOs and manufacturer.
Being part of the rising trend for large economies to seek greater technological independence from the USA may help, if one of the new operating systems can be adopted as a national flagship. This appears to be Sailfish’s hope. At the end of 2016, the Russian government chose Sailfish as the basis of its own mobile software platform, which was then developed by a new venture called Open Mobile Platform (OMP) and mandated for government agencies and state-owned corporations. Now called Aurora, the platform has even been mooted as a possible option for Huawei to use in place of Android.
The Russian decision, part of a broad national effort to develop more homegrown technology, was a major boost for Sailfish. It was created by former Nokia employees based on the MeeGo OS, which had been co-developed by Nokia and Intel, but sidelined when the former embraced Windows Phone. Despite a strong technical pedigree, Sailfish has struggled to gain visibility in a world where even Microsoft could not penetrate the Android/iOS fortress.
The December 2016 announcement was the first major endorsement of Jolla’s change of strategy of 2015, when it decided to focus on developing an open software platform, not on designing its own devices. The scale and resources required to succeed in smartphones and tablets proved too daunting for a start-up, and although its smartphone made it to market, it sold only small numbers, while a crowdfunded tablet was scrapped.
There is far greater potential in a robust, Linux-based mobile OS which can be licensed to manufacturers, not just for smartphones but Internet of Things devices, robots and other emerging categories.
Superior security, robustness and strong performance in industrial or enterprise applications are claims made for Sailfish, and they could certainly appeal to Russia’s state agencies, at a time when the government has redoubled its efforts to reduce use of US technology and to build up local platforms and ecosystems. In November 2016, a bill was proposed which would prevent government bodies from buying any software that was based on proprietary foreign frameworks like IBM Websphere, even if it were developed in Russia. The aim is to reduce reliance on foreign mobile operating systems to 50% by 2025, down from the 95% share held by Android and iOS in 2015.
And the choice of Sailfish is not just a strike against Android by an increasingly US-suspicious administration. There are other mobile OS candidates with roots outside America, including Samsung’s Tizen OS or Alibaba’s Aliyun (though Google claims this is a fork of Android). But the Jolla platform, it seems, offered genuine advantages as well as hailing from a friendly country. For one, it offers compatibility with the huge store of Android apps, unlike some failed challengers like Firefox Mobile.
Russia’s Ministry of Communications assessed various alternatives, according to local reports, and in particular, chose Sailfish over Tizen OS for its greater openness and security. Jolla chairman Antti Saarnio told TechCrunch that the selection process had started back in spring 2015. He added: “It started with the IT Ministry of Russia long-listing available alternative mobile operating systems. They ended up doing a technical analysis of two OSs: one was Tizen, the other was us, Sailfish OS. After a couple of months very thorough technical evaluation they selected our OS for further collaboration. What we then started was a joint R&D project with a local Russian organization to build an OS version of Sailfish into Russia so that government will have an independent OS but it’s supported by our overall code base.”
In the past, there have been reports that Russia was planning to support the creation of its own mobile OS from scratch, perhaps based around efforts by the dominant local search engine provider, Yandex, which has been steadily creating a fully fledged mobile experience and app store, based around heavily customized Android user experiences which exclude Google services. It has created a fork of Android using the open sourcecode underpinning the Google OS, not the official Open Handset Alliance specifications, which might be considered suspect by the Russian authorities (though they are royalty-free).
In 2014, Yandex launched its free Kit, which provides a pre-packaged suite of services to replace Google’s, and was immediately adopted by Huawei for devices the Chinese vendor planned to sell in Russia. The suite includes email, mapping, browser, 3D launcher, and Yandex.Store, which boasts around 100,000 apps.
But sources say it was too hard to secure support from a wide range of device makers and apps developers for a completely new OS, either from Yandex or a government project, and that failure would, in turn, deter consumer and even enterprise adoption.