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Computing

Review: Innovations Abound Beyond iOS and Android

Review: Innovations Abound Beyond iOS and Android
February 28, 2014 9:34AM

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Gartner says 94 percent of smartphones sales last year were either iPhones or Android devices; Windows Phone and BlackBerry devices made up another 5 percent combined. What about the remaining 1 percent? They are the wannabes such as Firefox, Sailfish and Ubuntu, and these alternative contenders boast some features you just may envy.

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The "1 percent" is often used to disparage the American elites at the very top of the wealth scale. When it comes to smartphones, however, the "1 percent" is the bottom of the heap.

Research firm Gartner says 94 percent of smartphones sales last year were either iPhones or Android devices. Windows Phone and BlackBerry devices made up another 5 percent combined.

What about the remaining 1 percent? They are the wannabes such as Firefox and Sailfish.

I had a chance to try out some of these little-known systems at the Mobile World Congress wireless show in Barcelona, Spain, this week. Many of them aren't even available in the U.S., where I live. Although I don't see myself replacing my Samsung Android phone even if I could, some of these alternative phones have features I envy.

Firefox OS, from Mozilla

Firefox is better known for its Web browser. Now, the people behind it are trying to adapt it to run smartphones targeted at emerging markets.

Firefox OS was launched last summer with three phones, priced around $50 to $70. They are available in 15 countries, but not in the U.S.

At the Barcelona show, Mozilla unveiled plans to expand to additional markets in Latin America and eastern Europe, while ZTE announced two new models. Chipmaker Spreadtrum Communications Inc. also announced a blueprint for any phone maker to make $25 smartphones using Firefox OS.

The home screen and icons resemble what's found on iPhones and Android.

Where Firefox OS starts to differ is in apps. With iPhones and Android, you go to an app store to get new apps. With Firefox OS, you typically have instant access to all apps, the same way you can visit a Web site for the first time without installing anything.

The catch is you need an Internet connection to use apps that aren't on your phone, but many apps need that access anyway to refresh news, social networks or restaurant guides.

Firefox OS also has a universal search for all content on the phone and online.

There's another neat feature coming to Firefox OS. Swipe from the left side of the screen to flip through recent apps one by one, just like hitting the back button on a Web browser.

Sailfish OS, from Jolla

Sailfish is based on the Linux operating system and comes from the Finnish company Jolla (pronounced "yolla"). Former Nokia employees created Jolla after that struggling cellphone maker abandoned an in-house operating system in favor of Microsoft's Windows Phone. (continued...)

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