Firefox OS Slinks Onto Smartphone Stage

While Mozilla has seen its share of the browser market decline, losing much ground to Chrome, Firefox could challenge another Google technology. On Monday, Mozilla announced that the Firefox OS mobile platform, previously known as “Boot to Gecko,” would be used by a number of mobile carriers including Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Smart, Sprint, Telecom Italia, Telfonica and Tenenor.

Brazil’s Telefonica will reportedly be the first carrier to offer a Firefox OS device, which will likely be released next year.

“This has a real appeal with carriers in these markets,” said Wayne Lam, IHS iSuppli senior analyst of wireless communications. “If you went back to the announcement earlier this year, Mozilla made it clear they really wanted to attach themselves to carriers. This is really an emerging market plan, using open source to allow a thin OS to bring smartphone technology into a developing market.”

Two hardware makers were also revealed this week: TCL and ZTE, with devices expected to arrive early in 2013.

Open Source From HTML5

The Firefox OS mobile platform, which is a fully open sourced HTML5-based OS, is actually based on the Linux kernel modified for Android. This could make it very easy for developers to take advantage of going forward.

“It’s all built on HTML5, which makes it hardware-independent and gives it potentially broad reach,” said Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence.

The HTML5 platform could thus encourage additional involvement from the open source community, while providing a smartphone experience to a higher proportion of the population.

“Firefox OS is a new mobile operating system built entirely using open Web standards,” said Mozilla spokesperson Gretchen Bender. “It allows for every device function — calling, messaging and browsing — to be developed as an HTML5 application which can access the underlying capabilities of a phone, only available to native apps on other ecosystems. The initiative’s origins are in the Boot to Gecko project, which for the first time allowed HTML5 applications to access the underlying capabilities of a mobile phone.”

Technology for the Developing Market

Brazil could be considered a test market to see if Firefox OS could rival the dominant players, notably Android and iOS, in larger, more established smartphone markets such as Western Europe and North America.

“This will likely be a low-end alternative to Android,” added Sterling. “It’s unlikely to rival top-of-the-line Android devices or the iPhone. Developer and consumer acceptance are wild cards. But I could see it succeeding in selected developing markets.”

It is in these developing markets where many potential users will never have a desktop computer, and the carriers likely see this as a potential new revenue stream as data charges could be higher than voice.

“The carriers want to do this, to reach those are primarily using voice,” added Lam. “This is a way to reach out to those customers and get them to use more data.”

Entry-Level Smartphones

For the developing world, Firefox OS could also make it possible to create a new low end market of smart devices that could all but kill off the so-called “dumb” handsets that can only be used with voice.

“This technology allows for a way to bring down the cost of the device,” Lam told LinuxInsider — and given that this technology is based on HTML5, it could make it easier for those with a Web presence to easily have a mobile presence as well.

“The potential savings are a big plus, it doesn’t take that much to create content for the handset if there is already a Web presence,” said Lam. “The cost of entry is fairly low.”

Outfoxing Android

It could also come back to the fact that Mozilla was pushed out of the desktop and could be looking for another space, while at the same time creating a market for lower-end smartphones.

“It is still early but it seems that Firefox could disrupt the smartphone platform,” said Lam.

Mozilla won’t likely be the last player to try to outfox the big players, including Google and Apple. But its success or failure could be a portent for others.

“Mozilla Firefox OS for smartphones is trying to punch its way onto the stage,” said telecommunications analyst Jeff Kagan. “Whether they will be successful and in fact a hit is the question. We’ll have to wait and see.”

It was just five years that Apple entered the market and only four since Android jumped in, Kagan noted.

“These are two operating systems, but a healthy industry needs many more,” he told LinuxInsider. “Carriers are being overcharged by Apple for the iPhone, so they want more choices.”

Whether Mozilla can offer that choice has yet to be seen.

“Mozilla has an open playing field and a big opportunity, if they can deliver something that customers love,” said Kagan. “That’s not always easy. Others have tried and failed.”

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