Startup bets on device success by sneaking under Apple and Google radar

Acadine Technologies thinks there's room alongside Silicon Valley's biggest powers for software to power drones, action cams, smartwatches, and the feature phones plenty of people still buy.

Acadine Technologies CEO Li Gong

H5OS is based on Firefox OS, a project Li Gong championed in his former job as Mozilla's president.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Chances are that if you bought a phone today, it would run on Apple's iOS or Google's Android software. That's because when people think of a handset, their minds immediately go to an iPhone or a device made by the likes of Samsung or LG Electronics.

But that isn't stopping Acadine Technologies, founded by one of the folks behind the Firefox software, from jumping into the software fray powering not only phones, but drones, medical equipment and more. The Hong Kong-based startup launched a new project on Wednesday that it believes will get you to use something else for a change.

Acadine's niche operating system, called H5OS, is an attempt to break the stranglehold that Google and Apple have on the software inside your electronic gadgets. The two giants wield tremendous power over the products and services available to us -- mapping, social networking, streaming video, email and instant messaging. Even though competitors have largely failed, Acadine hopes to win you over by building out a universe of products running on its software.

"People will encounter these devices without knowing what operating system is on it -- or in most cases care," Acadine CEO Li Gong said in an interview in Paris ahead of the company's debut at the Mobile World Congress tech show next week in Barcelona.

H5OS won't register with many people. But Gong argued that you'll care when its software lets device makers build a more useful drone, action camera or smartwatch, or fill a void in the basic-phone market for those who don't want a big-screen Android or iPhone.

The list of failures in the attempt to squeeze into the business dominated by iOS and Android is long: Microsoft Windows, BlackBerry, Samsung's Tizen and most recently, Mozilla's Firefox OS have all struggled. But Acadine won't try to win by taking on Android and iOS directly, an approach Gong believes is futile.

H5OS won't arrive in products until later this year, Gong said, but the company announced several partners Wednesday to help bring it to fruition: mobile processor technology company ARM, phone chipmaker Qualcomm, phone maker Alcatel, and mobile device technology specialist Thundersoft.

Given the track record of failures from other high-profile companies, Acadine faces an uphill battle.

"Fighting against Google and Apple in mobile operating systems is pointless, as Microsoft could tell you," said Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson.

H5OS is based on Firefox OS, a project Gong championed in his former job as Mozilla's president, but it's diverged significantly from those open-source roots, he said. For example, the company no longer has to ensure the core software will also work on personal computers, as Mozilla does with Firefox.

Like Firefox OS, H5OS can run apps written to use the Web technology built into browsers, which gives the company a bit of a head start. The software can power a phone, for instance, that's useful even without the direct help of the thousands of developers who write apps for Android and iOS.

Mozilla pushed Firefox OS for years and landed significant partnerships with carriers like Telefonica in Spain, Orange in France and Deutsche Telekom in Germany. But Mozilla's focus on very inexpensive phones ultimately failed, and it ditched its partnerships in December and the scrapped the phone project altogether in February.

Acadine is getting a fresh start. It raised $100 million in its first round of funding and has about 120 employees so far, Gong said. Its Hong Kong headquarters is closer to Chinese manufacturing powers than US companies, but it also has a Silicon Valley office in Palo Alto. It hopes to make money two ways: through fees like royalties and technical support that are paid when device makers use its software, and through services like search, e-commerce and preloaded apps.

And above all, it'll steer clear of Google. Customers still buy a lot of retro phones only good for voice calls, and Android only works on devices that have a touch screen.

"We're targeting segments where Android is weak," Gong said.

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