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Ubuntu, Firefox line up to take on iOS, Android in 2013

BlackBerry 10 and Windows Phone 8 will also be taking part in the smartphone battle

Android and iOS may be at the top of the heap in the smartphone world, but that hasn't stopped competitors, new and old, from trying to grab a piece of the pie. Ubuntu-maker Canonical announced Wednesday that it would enter the smartphone fray with its own Ubuntu phone OS based loosely on its popular Linux distribution for PCs. Research in Motion at the end of January will announce availability for BlackBerry 10, widely acknowledged as the company's last chance to retain any competitive advantage in the smartphone wars. Meanwhile, Microsoft is pushing Windows Phone 8, hoping that it unseats BlackBerry to become the third most popular smartphone OS behind Android and iOS. And the Mozilla Foundation also hopes to crack the smartphone world with a Web-based smartphone.

The year has barely started and 2013 is already promising to be the start of a second smartphone platform skirmish following the battles of late 2010 into mid-2011. At that time, Android and iOS still reigned supreme, while Nokia's Symbian essentially dropped by the wayside in favor of the Nokia-Microsoft Windows Phone partnership. A few months later Hewlett-Packard gave up on WebOS and has yet to get back in the smartphone game with an Android, Windows Phone, or Open WebOS alternative.

In 2013, consumers are faced once again with the prospect of six smartphone platforms to choose from. Is there enough room for all six? Will some of these upstarts disappear in the next 12 months or will some of the smaller competitors settle into their own niches, appealing to those who don't want an Android or iOS device?

Let's take a look at the field.

Android and iOS

Despite having two very different operating systems, when it comes to surveying the mobile landscape Android and iOS can really be lumped together. The popular smartphone and tablet platforms from Google and Apple, respectively, will continue to remain the most popular choices for the majority of users. Both systems offer mature software in their latest iterations (Jelly Bean 4.2 and iOS 6), each has a large and varied third-party app catalog and a variety of different device types, and both are backed with helpful online services such as iCloud and Google Now.

Windows Phone 8

The most likely candidate for a distant third place behind Android and iOS appears to be Microsoft's Windows Phone 8. The newly revamped Microsoft OS has been well received by critics and a few manufacturers are about to showcase Windows Phone 8 devices during the International CES 2013 exhibit including Huawei and Samsung. Windows Phone 8 offers integration with Microsoft services such as SkyDrive and Outlook.com, as well as a People hub that brings together all your social networking updates into one spot. There are also some interesting new features such as wireless charging on Nokia's line of Windows Phones, NFC capability, and a revamped enterprise hub for large deployments.

BlackBerry 10

Another contender for third place behind Android and iOS is Research In Motion's upcoming BlackBerry 10, set to make its final debut on January 30. At that time, RIM will announce pricing and availability for the first two BlackBerry 10 devices. The new version of RIM's smartphone platform features a touch-centric, card interface that has echoes of Hewlett-Packard's WebOS.

Firefox OS

Targeted mainly at emerging markets, the Mozilla Foundation in partnership with Spain-based telecom Telef├│nica will launch the first round of Firefox OS devices in Brazil in 2013. In the U.S., Sprint has pledged to support Firefox OS, but it's not clear when a Firefox OS device would land on U.S. shores. The unique aspect of Firefox OS is it relies entirely on Web-based technologies such as HTML 5 and JavaScript for all of its software applications including the phone dialer. The claim is that Firefox OS can offer a modern smartphone experience using under-powered hardware since its reliance on Web technologies do not require pricey processors or loads of RAM. Firefox OS sounds like an interesting idea, but even with Sprint's support the chances of Firefox OS becoming popular in the U.S. feels like a long shot due to the popularity of established alternatives such as Android and iOS.

Ubuntu phone

The final contender for the next smartphone showdown is Canonical's new Ubuntu for smartphones. The new smartphone OS requires no physical buttons and relies entirely on swiping gestures for controlling the phone. Ubuntu for smartphones uses all four edges of a device to reveal different functionality. Swipe from the left, for example, and you get Ubuntu's launcher with your favorite apps available. Swiping from the right when the phone is unlocked and you get your most recent applications in the reverse order you opened them. Canonical in the coming weeks plans to roll out a version of the Ubuntu phone OS for the Galaxy Nexus, and the first round of Ubuntu phone hardware is slated for late 2013 to early 2014.

Beyond these six big names there are also some other dark horse candidates, including HP's Open WebOs, the open source version of WebOS, and Tizen, another open source mobile alternative.

There appears to be more smartphone choices headed your way, but whether there's room for more than two mobile operating systems given the popularity of Android and iOS will be one of the big questions for 2013.


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