After Android: Ubuntu, Xiaomi, Meizu or Tencent?

It would be something of an understatement to say that the smartphone market is hot: it has clearly taken over from the desktop sector as the mainstream that defines the direction of computing. That's good news for open source, since it means Windows is increasingly irrelevant as far as the future is concerned. Android, of course, is dominating this sector, but nothing stays still: there will, one day, be an "after Android" - so who will be the key player(s) there?

Not, I fear, Tizen. Although to begin with I hoped this might develop into a strong alternative to Android, that is clearly not to be. I've not written much about it here, since it seems to spend most of its time merging with other projects and re-branding itself. This article has an excellent representation of how Tizen has evolved over the years; it also reviews the first Tizen phone, from Samsung, concluding:

Tizen doesn't offer any innovative ideas. It's just Android with worse design, no direction, no hardware support, and no apps.

Sadly, then, I think we can forget about Tizen. I'm more optimistic about another outsider in the smartphone stakes, Mozilla's FirefoxOS. This has the huge advantage of going for the absolute bottom of the market, where profit margins are so slim that no traditional company would bother. Mozilla, of course, isn't primarily interested in making money, since it has ulterior motives in terms of promoting free software and providing access to mobile telephony for people in emerging economies. But that still leaves us with the question: who might take on Android using open source for mainstream smartphone users?

An interesting new entrant here comes from Ubuntu, which has finally started selling its smartphone system:

The world’s first Ubuntu phone is now available for sale all over Europe, direct from the manufacturer, BQ. The Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition includes an 8 megapixel camera, dual SIM and best of all, no network lock.

Only 169,90€

I was really looking forward to the Ubuntu smartphone, and seriously considering buying one. This was largely because of its amazing ability to hook up to a screen and keyboard and become a fully-fledged Ubuntu desktop system. That would be a perfect way to carry around a functional computer in your pocket, using a screen and keyboard where available. The only problem is, Canonical has dropped this from the final release. [Not true it seems - see update below.] That means the Ubuntu smartphone becomes rather a me-too system, without any clear reason to buy it rather than one of the hundreds of Android options around.

One company that certainly can't be accused of offering some "me-too" Android system is the Chinese manufacturer Xiaomi, which I wrote about at the end of last year. Xiaomi is a favourite at the moment, widely regarded as the next smartphone leader, but there's always the risk that it is something of a shooting star - impressive for a while, and then burning out.

That's why it's worth keeping an eye on what other key Chinese companies are up to. As I mentioned in my recent article on this market, one of the Internet giants in China is Alibaba; it's not only huge, but also very keen to extend its dominance beyond China. Since its home-grown Linux-based mobile operating system, Aliyun, has been a clear failure, this latest move comes as no surprise:

Alibaba is stumping up more than half a billion dollars to kick its lacklustre mobile phone business into gear. The NYSE-listed e-commerce giant today announced a $590 million investment in Chinese phone-maker Meizu.

As its Wikipedia page explains, Meizu is currently one of the top ten smartphone manufacturers in China, and uses a variant of Android, as do most Chinese smartphone manufacturers. Interestingly, Meizu was one of the two manufacturers that Canonical said last year would be supporting its new Ubuntu version for phones, but that is likely to remain something of a specialised offering. The investment by Alibaba will not only provide plenty of money to put in research and development, but will also increase Meizu's visibility and marketing reach hugely.

Xiaomi was founded less than five years ago, is already challenging Samsung in China, and may well do so elsewhere too. In the fast-moving world of smartphones, there's no reason why the Meizu+Alibaba combination couldn't repeat that rapid rise. Then there is the tantalising hint of a new Android-based system from another Chinese giant, Tencent - best known as the creator of the massively-popular WeChat messaging app.  It's obviously far too early to say what impact this might have, but Tencent is not a company to be underestimated.

In any case, whether Xiaomi, Meizu, Tencent or some complete newcomer emerges as the dominant smartphone manufacturer in China and other parts of the world, it seems almost certain that the underlying software will be running Linux, just not a variety that Google controls.

Update: Mark Shuttleworth kindly sent in this update on what exactly the plan is for desktop integration on the Ubuntu phone:

the code that runs the new Ubuntu phone does have preliminary desktop capabilities built in. Those capabilities are aimed at a beta release in October this year with production in our 16.04 LTS, next April. That work is all happening in public as open source; you can see a developer video of a tablet running our phone code, switched into desktop mode, at for example.

At one stage we showed the traditional Ubuntu desktop running as a side process (like a virtual machine without the virtualisation) on Android phones; we stopped work on Android+Ubuntu because we could deliver a much more coherent story if it was one codebase in a single system than by bolting the desktop onto Android, so the new work is what you see in that video and what we'll include as a beta in our 15.10 release

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