Can Firefox OS be the new Android?
30th Apr 2013 | 14:26
We explore if betting on the open web will pay off for Mozilla
"It cannot be right that two companies lock down and control their experience … it's the equivalent of two companies controlling every service you use on the internet." So says Dan Appelquist, Open Web Advocate at Telefónica Digital, which intends to pull the rug from under Apple and Android by selling smartphones with the 'open web' architecture of Mozilla's Firefox OS.
The first handsets like the ZTE Open, go on sale this June, will attempt to popularise common, open standards for apps that make them transferable across different handsets and tablets. In doing so it will try to take apart the acceptance of the 'walled garden' app ecosystem popularised by both Apple's iOS and the Android OS.
"Firefox OS is not a proprietary platform, it is fully standards-based and built on HTML5," says Andreas Gal, Vice President, Mobile Engineering, Mozilla. "What's more, Firefox OS is not a new ecosystem - it is the Web and the Web is the largest existing ecosystem we have today."
Gal thinks that under the present splintered, closed regimes, app developers have it too hard. "Having to build an app in multiple formats - all to reach people who have never asked for the specific app I am thinking of building - is not sustainable," he says, adding that Mozilla hopes Firefox OS will act as a catalyst for the 'open web'. "Over eight million developers develop in HTML5 today compared to around 100,000 iOS developers and 400,000 Android, but ten million for HTML5," he says. "We just want to unlock the power of HTML5 for standards-based work."
The not-for-profit Mozilla's intentions might be good, but the closed ecosystem for apps, popularised by Apple's app store (20 billion+ downloads in 2012) and Google Play (revenue up six-fold in 2012) on Android, is proving very popular.
"Right now, the mobile world is busy because there is so much economic value to be gained by owning a platform," says Gal. "The problem with mobile for users today is that once a user buys apps, music etc. on a given platform, they are not currently transportable to another ecosystem."
However much of a 'level playing field' Firefox OS seeks to create, it's not owners of iPhones and Galaxy S-somethings in the UK, Europe or the USA that Mozilla is aiming Firefox OS at, at least not initially. Smartphone penetration stands at just 16% in Latin America (it's over 50% in the UK, and will nudge saturation levels shortly), which makes it an ideal proving ground for a new and untested operating system.
"In the coming years, lower-cost Android smartphones are expected to dominate the markets in emerging areas such India, China and Africa," says Kevin Curran, senior member at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). "Launching a new smartphone OS is not to be taken lightly, but Mozilla's main partner is Spain's Telefónica, which has over 200 million mobile subscribers in Latin America."
Firefox OS will see the light of day this June in Venezuela, Poland, Brazil, Portugal and Spain, with the first handsets including the Alcatel One Touch Fire and the ZTE Open. Telefónica has strong links with major carriers around the world including América Móvil, China Unicom, Deutsche Telekom, Sprint, Telecom Italia and SingTel, and it also has mobile phone chip-maker Qualcomm on-board.
"These partners certainly add hope to the ambitious project," says Curran. "It seems they aim to sell it in the pre-paid phone markets, where lower-income people generally get their airtime."
This is a market where low income users prefer to pay only their operator for both air-time and apps rather than pay a third-party like Apple or Google. It's also a market where inexpensive Android devices currently dominate.
"This market is not being well addressed by current offerings," says Appelquist about Latin America. "High-end smartphones are priced out of the reach of the vast majority of consumers and we see low end Android devices offering a very poor experience."
However, for now, at least, most of the lower-end devices are - and will remain to be - based on Android. "It is standards-based and open source, so of course it will be the OS of choice for manufacturers of lower priced handsets," says Mohammed Hussain, MD of mobile phone accessories retailer, Mobile Fun, "but it will be interesting to see if Mozilla's Firefox OS gains traction in the budget smartphone sector." He expects Samsung's Tizen and Nokia's budget Windows devices to try to crack this sector, too, particularly in emerging markets.
Others are not convinced that Firefox OS can carve-out success despite its open-hearted intentions. "While I love the idea of the Firefox Phone OS, and a Firefox media based system on TV," says Peter Chadha, Founder of DrPete, "at the moment I am not convinced that these will gain market penetration, unless it is funded by Google or Yahoo on the basis of search and adverts, as Android is already free. Perhaps Firefox is hoping that by offering this operating system, open source developers will want to come on board and deliver something really different and innovative?"
That would please those who want to see an end to the 'walled garden' approach to the mobile web, such as World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, though the success of Firefox OS is far from inevitable.