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Mozilla's Firefox OS smartphones do matter -- to developers and buyers

'Mozilla was never about taking over the market,' says CTO; Firefox OS should find success as low cost, Web-based alternative to iOS and Android

Given Android and iOS together control 90% of the worldwide smartphone market, what chance does Mozilla have to find success with its new Firefox OS for smartphones?

Will Firefox OS even matter, given the struggles Windows Phone, BlackBerry and other operating systems are facing in their struggles to gain market share against Apple and Google?

Despite such questions from skeptics, the Firefox OS does matter, insists Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich.

In a press conference on Monday, Eich acknowledged the odds facing Firefox OS, but then laid out a strong argument for the platform.

Eich described keen interest shown by 8 million Web developers in the OS, and said that 20-plus smartphone makers and wireless carriers plan to offer new Firefox OS-based smartphones to first-time buyers globally, initially in markets where low-cost phones are in demand.

Telefonica will start selling the Firefox OS-based ZTE Open smartphone on Tuesday in Spain for $90 and a contract, and then in some Latin American countries. Meanwhile, Alcatel will offer the One Touch Fire soon while Deutsche Telekom plans to launch a Firefox OS smartphone in Poland.

Sales in the U.S will come later, though it isn't clear how much later. Eich did say that the Firefox OS will appear on smartphones in the U.S. "through various channels."

Sprint, considered a prime candidate to sell a Firefox OS device, refused to comment on its plans on Monday.

"We heard intense interest from lots of [carrier] partners for a device not tied to one of the two bigs," meaning Android or iOS, Eich said. "There's no reason why the Web couldn't be a first class platform for [running] mobile apps. We are not aiming at Fortress Apple and Fortress Google, but [can] convert a lot of the feature phone market. That would be excellent ... Mozilla was never about taking over the market."

Eich said there are 10 times as many Web developers globally -- about 8 million -- than there are iOS and Android developers combined. That large group creates automatic interest in building apps on HTML 5 for a Web-based phone, rather than a native, closed system like Android or iOS, he said.

But why would buyers care about Firefox OS?

"That's a good question," Eich said. "Users don't know or care about what's under the hood, but they want a brand they trust, a good price and something that satisfies them about apps like Facebook. That's a pretty short checklist, but we aspire to give them the open-endedness of the Web."

Eich and Chris Lee, director of the Firefox OS at Mozilla, said an adaptive application search tool from Everything.me running on the Firefox OS can be used to combine prior knowledge of searches with a person's location (if allowed) to help judge a person's intent in a particular search, with local results appearing first. "What neat about it being a Web phone is that there are tons of apps on the Web," Lee said.

Three analysts said the Firefox OS will face a tough challenge catching on in the U.S., especially against higher-end phones. Still, Mozilla is correct in its belief that carriers are looking for alternatives to Android and iOS, especially Android, they admitted.

"Operators are certainly looking for alternatives to Android to lower the level of dependency on Google," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Gartner. "Carriers also want to persuade feature phone users to upgrade."

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates added: " I just don't see Mozilla phones making any real headway, except perhaps in emerging markets where [the lower] cost is an advantage."

In Brazil where he traveled recently, Eich said the iPhone is "prohibitively expensive," making a cheaper alternative smartphone running the Firefox OS more attractive.

Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC, said the difficulties that BlackBerry 10 and Windows Phone 8 are facing show the difficulties facing Firefox OS, still a virtually unknown product.

Firefox OS should scale well to larger screen sizes in tablets, but Eich didn't commit to any products or time frame for a move to such devices. "The tablet is the obvious next choice" for Firefox OS, he said.

He also said games will "look good on the Firefox OS in the next year," as the platform matures.

In addition to Firefox OS offering first-time smartphone owners access to the entire Web at low-cost, Eich defended the platform on the grounds of offering buyers more choices.

"Competition keeps everybody honest," Eich said. "It's bad if there's any single vendor. Now, the market is pretty balanced with an obvious duopoly of Apple and Google. When Firefox OS was first announced, there was intense interest. We felt the time had come."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His email address is [email protected].

Read more about mobile/wireless in Computerworld's Mobile/Wireless Topic Center.


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