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How Firefox OS Could Sneak Into the Smartphone Chicken Coop

By Patrick Nelson
Jul 26, 2013 5:00 AM PT

Spanish wireless network Telefónica recently started selling a super-cheap Linux-driven phone called the "ZTE Open". It's selling in Spain for the equivalent of around US$90, which includes about $40 worth of prepay.

How Firefox OS Could Sneak Into the Smartphone Chicken Coop

Essentially, it's a $50 smartphone.

Aside from the bottom-end retail price, what's unique about this smartphone is that it's the first to use Firefox OS.

The HTML5 Difference

Like Android, the Firefox OS mobile operating system is based on Linux. A highly adaptable markup language called HTML5, however, is its biggest differentiating feature.

Without getting too technical, HTML5 can be highly suitable for use across screens and consequently across devices, partly because it has scalable vector graphics. It is also multimedia-friendly, handles cross-browser errors well and doesn't need plug-ins.

Herein, arguably, lies Firefox OS's potential killer advantage: It's a predominantly HTML5-developed ecosystem.

For anyone choosing to develop in HTML5, it becomes one-language-cheap-and-easy to simply shunt an app over to Firefox's marketplace -- even if Firefox OS is a minor player that wouldn't ordinarily get a look-in.

Equally important for Firefox Marketplace, the apps stay updated because it's easy -- the developer is already updating for other platforms anyway.

Open Web Apps

In addition to the simplicity of HTML-based Firefox OS and its Open Web Apps -- with its single, common, technology stack that also includes commonly known CSS and Javascript -- Firefox may have other advantages too. Namely, there are some key philosophical differences between it and the other mobile OS players.

First, there's a conscious effort to sell the Open Web Apps mobile platform to developers as a freedom-loving concept: There's no vendor-controlled ecosystem like Apple's App Store involved, and Mozilla, Firefox's parent, is keen for developers to know that they can use their own website or other store to sell the apps.

Mozilla is also pitching its 450 million desktop users as a potential customer base. Remember, the technology is scalable across screen resolutions.

The Price Advantage

Could Firefox OS beat out Android?

Further clues may be in Spain -- possibly in Telefónica's offices. Spain is suffering economically, with unemployment reaching perilous heights. It's no coincidence that cut-price Firefox OS isn't going head-to-head with expensive Android devices in better-off economies instead.

Factor in cheap hardware with cheap-to-make and plentiful apps and a dodgy economy, and Mozilla may be on to something.

Patrick Nelson has been a professional writer since 1992. He was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson studied design at Hornsey Art School and wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism. His introduction to technology was as a nomadic talent scout in the eighties, where regular scrabbling around under hotel room beds was necessary to connect modems with alligator clips to hotel telephone wiring to get a fax out. He tasted down and dirty technology, and never looked back.

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