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LinuxInsider.com

Mozilla Gives Up Firefox Phone Ambitions

By Jack M. Germain
Dec 10, 2015 12:34 PM PT

Mozilla on Wednesday confirmed that it has hung up on the Firefox OS mobile phone and will try using the operating system to dial into other connected device uses instead.

Mozilla Gives Up Firefox Phone Ambitions

The company spent several years developing a browser-based smartphone OS.

It ended its sales program of the Firefox mobile operating system to carriers and will no longer develop the OS for smartphones, Mozilla said.

Some Mozilla members broke the news at the company's annual Mozlando developer conference in Orlando, Florida, on Tuesday and via its Twitter feed.

The smartphone operating system is based on Linux and built using JavaScript and HTML5. Its concept was burrowed in the idea that made Google's Chromebooks a winning hardware-software duo around the Chrome OS.

One key differentiator of Mozilla's plan was the notion that phone apps should not be localized on the device but instead should be accessed on the Web. The fly in that ointment was poor performance and few apps available to first-round users.

"Firefox OS proved the flexibility of the Web, scaling from low-end smartphones all the way up to HDTVs," said Ari Jaaksi, senior vice president of connected devices at Mozilla.

"However, we weren't able to offer the best user experience possible, and so we will stop offering Firefox OS smartphones through carrier channels," he told LinuxInsider.

No Real Connection

The main problems Mozilla faced with the Firefox OS were funding it and selling it, according to Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

"They couldn't get traction. ... They weren't selling. The costs exceeded the benefits," he told LinuxInsider.

Related to these problems was the need for a lot of back-end services. Today's mobile operating systems are more than just system calls and a few utilities, said Tsahi Levent-Levi, consultant at BlogGeek.me.

"Penetrating this market requires big money and a differentiating aspect. Firefox OS had neither," he told LinuxInsider. "In hindsight, Mozilla OS was a long shot to begin with."

Effort Vs. Response

Other companies have had high-profile phone failures.

Amazon's Fire Phone failed, but it showcased that even with a decent marketing budget it is difficult to break into this market now. Samsung, also better funded, has tried a new platform approach as well and failed, noted Enderle.

"Mozilla has very limited resources. This effort was never going to have the backing it needed to succeed unless they could get a huge funding partner, and their biggest funding partner is Google, so backing was problematic," he said.

Mozilla fought a two-front battle and lost. It tried to compete on the low-cost end of the market, but really couldn't, noted Levent-Levi.

"I am assuming the carriers supporting Firefox OS received lukewarm feedback from customers on it and decided it is not worth the effort, forcing Mozilla to either invest more of their own funds or call it quits," he said.

Interest Lacking

The likely answer to the lack of financial and user support is that sometimes even if you build something, people do not come. The people in this case are both customers and developers, according to Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

"As intriguing as Mozilla's idea was technically, the company never successfully explained why the smartphone market really needed another OS," he told LinuxInsider.

The market is difficult for even mature mobile operating systems like BlackBerry's to survive. Launching a new and immature OS is hugely challenging, King noted.

"I expect Mozilla looked at the early market responses and simply decided that exiting would be less painful and expensive than continuing," he said.

Technically Speaking

An inherent contributor to the failed mobile OS might have been its limited technology, suggested Levent-Levi. HTML5 on its own was not enough.

"That's because relying on HTML5 exclusively for applications meant they were slower than native counterparts on the same hardware. And that at the same time when Android started going into low cost with its Android One initiative," he said.

The Firefox phone's main strength might well have been its Achilles' heel. That could revisit any new uses for the Firefox OS.

"It was independent of Google, potentially more secure, but it had no apps and no significant demand," Enderle said.

Still, Firefox OS has usefulness, Mozilla said. It may have hung up on phone conversations, but the company is talking about other connections.

"We are proud of the benefits Firefox OS added to the Web platform and will continue to experiment with the user experience across connected devices. We will build everything we do as a genuine open source project, focused on user experience first, and build tools to enable the ecosystem to grow," said Mozilla's Jaaksi.

Connecting the Devices

Mozilla's giving up on smartphones gives Firefox OS a unique upper-hand in the Internet of Things space. Without its mobile features, Firefox OS is a handheld device with Internet connectivity and a screen, according to Michelle Burke, marketing manager for Future Insights.

"It also has the ability to run multiple APIs. This gives Firefox OS the ability to compete with any handheld remote device and surpass them since it's relatively cheap, has infinite possibilities and can replicate any similar feature in IoT (such as the Nest!)," she told LinuxInsider.

The IoT may pose the same difficulties that led Mozilla to scuttle the Firefox phone, however: It might just might not be needed.

"Unless they can increase their funding, there are already plenty of IoT operating systems in the market. While the funding threshold is lower, given the only reason to do this would be to get Firefox users, IoT would also be a poor choice," said Enderle.

Looking Forward, Maybe

Retooling the Firefox OS for the Internet of Things is certainly a possibility, but time is flying, noted Pund-IT's King.

"If Mozilla decides to move in this direction, it will be interesting to see if the company's efforts are somehow informed by this failure," he said.

The Firefox OS reflected Mozilla's strengths in open source and in working with developers in those communities. Some mobile players and platforms are becoming increasingly proprietary.

"Mozilla could become a trusted source for a large portion of the IoT developer community," King said.

Using the Firefox OS to connect devices on the IoT could be yet another long shot, he noted.

"I don't think there was ever any forward-moving alternative for Firefox OS in mobile, and taking it elsewhere will be a real challenge as well," said Levent-Levi. "It will hit the same brick walls."


Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear. You can connect with him on Google+.


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