Android. iOS. Windows Phone. BlackBerry. The world has no shortage of capable, full-featured smartphone platforms, fighting on the slickness of their hardware, the depth of their app stores, the security of their email systems, the life of their batteries, the quality of their cameras and the performance of their cellular data connections.
While the big guys compete on features, Firefox OS is focused on price. Which is funny, of course, because for handset makers, the open-source Android is basically free, beyond having to pay Microsoft to license its patents.
There’s a lot of potential, though, and at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, the latest version of Firefox OS and the latest set of handset partners came up with an intriguing offer: A smartphone for US$25.
Said Jay Sullivan, COO of Mozilla, in a statement: “People in Latin America and Eastern Europe have eagerly upgraded from their feature phones to Firefox OS smartphones and now have rich access to the Web and apps. Sales have far exceeded our targets. But 2013 was just the beginning. In 2014, we are differentiating our user experience, and our partners are growing the portfolio of devices. We are also enabling a whole new category of smartphone, priced around $25, that will bring even more people around the world online.”
Twenty-five dollars is cheap, even by modern standards. To quote from the cheeky CNET review of the Alcatel One Touch Fire:
The 3.5-inch Fire is a dinky little number wrapped in a cheerful, brightly colored plastic casing. The rounded corners and vibrant look—including signature Firefox orange—give it a chunky, playful appearance.
It’s basically the Alcatel T’Pop, a low-end feature phone, but the big difference is the software. Firefox OS is an open-source operating system created by Mozilla, the folks behind the Firefox Web browser. Apps are built using HTML5, which means that in theory they run on the Web and on your phone or tablet.
You aren’t going to confuse the Fire’s tech specs with those from your favorite Apple, Samsung, LG or Motorola devices, not with its 256MB RAM, 1GB processor, 2GB storage and 3.2 megapixel camera. However, in markets where iOS and Android devices are too expensive or unavailable, the Fire will be a very attractive offering.
What about apps? In today’s market, app developers are focusing on iOS and Android. All other platforms, including Windows Phone and BlackBerry, are lagging far behind. Lump Firefox OS in there too. According to Mozilla:
The Firefox Marketplace has seen thousands of developers submitting apps and millions of downloads of popular global and relevant local apps. Top global apps include Cut the Rope, Disney’s Where’s My Water?, Facebook, EverNav, HERE, Line, Pinterest, SoundCloud, The Weather Channel, TimeOut, Twitter, Yelp and YouTube.
It’s a nice start, but without serious handset market share, don’t expect Firefox OS to be competitive. There will be a small core of apps, of course, but otherwise users will access mobile websites through the handset’s browser. Given the price point, that may be good enough.
#!According to Mozilla, the future is going to be even brighter. Again, here’s information from the foundation:
Upcoming versions of Firefox OS will offer users fun and innovative new features and services including new and intuitive navigation, a powerful universal search feature, support for LTE networks and dual SIM cards, easy ways to share content, ability to create custom ringtones, replaceable home screens and Firefox Accounts.
New versions of Firefox OS have many performance improvements that dramatically improve the user experience, including speedier launch times, smoother scrolling and improved keyboard accuracy. Here are highlights on a few of the features coming next for Firefox OS:
• Deep customization options for operators and manufacturers, developers and users. This includes the ability to create custom ringtones and replaceable home screens, which were direct requests from Firefox OS users.
• A new universal search that will revolutionize how users discover content on their phones. The feature is available on any screen – simply swipe down from the top to find new apps, content or navigate to anything on the phone or the Web.
• New navigation features to make multitasking intuitive, fluid and smart, much like how users interact with the Web. Users can easily swipe from the left and right edges to seamlessly move between pages, content and apps in a fun way that saves time.
• Easy and direct sharing of content (and even software updates) in a secure way with NFC support, without the need for data or Wifi.
• LTE support to make the mobile experience even faster.
• Firefox OS will introduce Firefox Accounts and services. Firefox Accounts is a safe and easy way for users to create an account that enables them to sign in and take Firefox everywhere. With Firefox Accounts, Mozilla can better integrate services including Firefox Marketplace, Firefox Sync, backup, storage, or even a service to help locate, message or wipe a phone if it were lost or stolen.
Sounds nice. Even so, were I building mobile apps, I wouldn’t be paying any attention to Firefox OS. None whatsoever.
Were I running websites, I would be watching my user logs, and if enough traffic appears from Firefox OS-based handsets and tablets, I would consider doing usability testing.
Yes, Firefox OS is a serious platform. However, it is far too soon to take the platform seriously.
Have you seen Firefox OS in your server logs? Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alan Zeichick, founding editor of SD Times, is principal analyst of Camden Associates.