Can Mozilla's Firefox OS leapfrog competitors Microsoft's Windows Phone, BlackBerry and others to become the third-leading mobile platform? A Mozilla executive has indicated that part of the strategy to do so includes the availability of the OS on high-end smartphones.
Previously, only lower-end smartphones with Firefox OS had been announced. The first premium device is expected to be released from Sony. Li Gong, Mozilla's senior vice president for mobile devices, told news media this week that Sony "is known for quality and user experience," and Mozilla is working with the electronics giant to determine which device will be employed. He added that "low-end entry point devices" are a good place to enter a market, but the intention is to build up an ecosystem that includes higher-end devices.
Free Developer Model
In order to avoid going head-to-head with the two biggest mobile platforms, Android and Apple's iOS, Mozilla's announced strategy had been focused on entry-level handsets in emerging markets, such as Latin America and Eastern Europe, where smartphones do not have as great a market share as in the U.S. and Western Europe. The first Firefox OS smartphones are expected to be released by July in those areas.
Two developer preview models are already out, the $110 Keon and the $194 Peak, both from the Spanish retailer Geeksphone. To encourage developers, Mozilla announced Thursday it will offer a free Keon to any developer who is building a Firefox OS app or has an existing app they want to port to the platform. The free phones will be available until the end of this month, or until the designated supply runs out.
In addition to Sony, phone makers Alcatel One Touch, ZTE, Huawei, and LG have said they will release Firefox OS models, and carriers Telefonica, Etisalat, Smart, Spring, Telecom Italia, Deutsche Telekom, China Unicorn and Telenor have said they will offer such phones.
One key difference from Android that Mozilla hopes will help drive manufacturer and carrier adoption is that the OS offers a fully open-source development process, whereas Android, while also open source, is controlled by Google. Mozilla has pointed out that handset makers or carriers have made only relatively minor adjustments to the Android OS, such as interface modifications.
Lots of Competition
But Firefox is not the only open-source alternative to Google's Android. There's also Ubuntu, which is emphasizing its ability to provide the same OS on mobile, laptop and desktop devices, and Samsung's Tizen.
Another potential advantage: the Firefox OS platform is designed specifically for Web apps written in HTML5, which is already widely used on the Web. The idea is that developers can adapt existing Web HTML5 apps largely by adding a particular kind of file about the app, in addition of course to interface modifications if needed. Unlike other Web apps for mobile devices, HTML5 apps for Firefox OS devices will have access to core device functions, such as camera.
Avi Greengart, an analyst with industry research firm Current Analysis, said that while Firefox OS could "find a niche," it's unlikely to reach the third mobile OS position based on its current trajectory.
At the higher end where Sony's model might reside, Greengart pointed out, there are already many smartphone alternatives that use Android and iOS. At the lower end, he noted that Nokia announced Thursday a $99 Asha 501 smartphone with an updated version of its Asha OS for emerging markets, and there are various Android forked versions on low-end devices in China, India and other markets that are essentially "Android without the Google services."