Major setbacks for two new smartphone OSs, Tizen and Ubuntu Touch

Will 2014 be the year when scrappy new challengers take on the might of Android(s goog) and iOS(s aapl)? Never say never, but the challenge won’t come from Tizen nor Ubuntu Touch.

Japanese carrier NTT DoCoMo(s dcm) has indefinitely suspended its plans for a Tizen phone launch this year, and Ubuntu backer Canonical has admitted that there’s unlikely to be any Ubuntu handset coming from a major manufacturer or carrier this year.

Tizen train stalls

Tizen began life in 2011 as an evolution of two other Linux-based OSs that never lived up to the hype, Intel(s intc) and Nokia(s nok)’s MeeGo, and LiMo, which you will have never encountered if you don’t live in Japan. Samsung hopped aboard the Tizen train in early 2012, merging in its own, regionally successful, low-end platform, Bada.


Samsung remains Tizen’s biggest proponent, having revealed in November that it’s using the lightweight OS to power the NX300M smart camera. However, at the time it also said that plans for a Tizen phone launch had been pushed back to 2014.

And now DoCoMo has pulled out – for now. The company said early Friday that there wasn’t enough growth in the Japanese smartphone market to provide space for a new OS. This is very bad for Samsung, which had to concede last week that it wouldn’t be launching a Tizen phone in the U.S. this year either, because it isn’t “a great test market”. You know what has traditionally been a great test market? Japan.

Samsung is by far the biggest manufacturer in the Android(s goog) market, and it will have been hoping to use Tizen as leverage against Android progenitor Google. After all, Samsung’s many customers are often in it for the extras that the company builds on top of Android, and the OS running underneath is becoming less important – particularly when there are tools such as OpenMobile ACL that Samsung could use to allow Android apps to run on Tizen.

Touch too much

And then there’s Ubuntu Touch, which is basically the venerable desktop Linux distribution wrangled into mobile form. It’s a very intriguing concept — for smartphone or tablet use, it displays like a normal mobile OS, but connect it to a monitor and keyboard and it suddenly turns into the desktop version.

Ubuntu Touch

This has great potential, particularly in the enterprise, but British Ubuntu backer Canonical had a rough second half of 2013. First it failed to hit an incredibly lofty $32 million crowdfunding goal for the Ubuntu Edge, a high-end handset that was intended to showcase what the OS could do with powerful hardware – this was good for getting the name out there, as Canonical did still manage to break the record for the most money pledged in a crowdfunding drive, but manufacturers may not have seen it as a ringing endorsement.

Then Canonical’s timetable slipped – the October 2013 release of Ubuntu was supposed to be the one where all that mobile-desktop harmony came in, but it turned out that Ubuntu’s new touch-friendly Mir display server was only ready for mobile, not desktop. Hopefully full convergence will come in April, in Ubuntu 14.04.

Last month, Canonical chief Mark Shuttleworth said the firm had signed up a manufacturer to ship Ubuntu on high-end phones sometime in 2014. “We are now pretty much at the board level on four household brands,” he added.

But this week, Ubuntu community manager Jono Bacon said in a Reddit Ask Me Anything session that this was very unlikely to happen:

“Longer-term we would love to see the major OEMs [manufacturers]/carriers shipping Ubuntu handsets. This is a long road though with many components, and I would be surprised if we see anything like this before 2015. When the major OEMs/Carriers ship, this is when many of the ISVs [app developers] will be on-board too.”

Bacon did say, however, that some smaller manufacturers might give Ubuntu a shot this year. And there’s always self-installation – personally, I’m planning to stick Ubuntu onto my first-generation Nexus 7 once 14.04 comes out.

So in summary, we won’t be seeing any great challenge to Android and iOS(s aapl) from Tizen nor Ubuntu this year, if ever. Windows Phone(s msft) remains the one to watch — particularly in Europe — and then there’s the low-end Firefox OS, which many carriers are enthusiastically backing but for which we still haven’t seen any sales figures.