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Firefox OS: A new challenger to Android?

Aditya Kulkarni
10th Jul 2012
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The Mozilla foundation announced something intriguing last week that should have been a big deal, but because of the obvious lack of a hype machine at the foundation, it didn't make enough splash with the mainstream media. Despite the lack of hype in this noisy season of announcements by all the big players, I think what they announced was quite interesting.I'm talking about the new Mobile OS from Mozilla - Firefox OS. The name, by the way, is a big improvement from from its previous one - "Boot to Gecko". The Mozilla foundation seems to be pretty serious about it, and it is aimed as a competitor to Google's Android. Android and Firefox OS will share some similar characteristics - Both are based on the Linux kernel and will be open-source and free. However, Firefox OS is aimed at a fundamentally different use case - It will be a browser-based OS, rather than one capable of running "native" apps like Android or iOS.

Low-end devices

The most important distinction between the current crop of mobile OSes - Android, iOS and even Windows Phone - is that Firefox OS is aimed explicitly at low-end devices. Despite falling prices, smartphone have remained largely expensive - In fact, an argument can be made that in the smartphone market, the specs of phones are improving while the price point of the "latest" android phone remains the same. Mozilla claims that there actually is a huge market for lower-end smartphones, and I think they're right. Firefox OS has been designed so that it can apparently run on phones that have even a 600 MHz processor (The Galaxy S3 runs 4 x 1.4GHz processor)

Mozilla is targeting a price point of ~$100 (INR 5,000). A think a good touchscreen phone that can do email, streaming, video etc... is going to be a great buy at that price point.

HTML5

One of the most interesting things about Firefox OS is that it is going to be a fully HTML5 complaint. It will work similar to Chrome OS, but for the mobile phone. I've long argued that HTML5 is gaining increasing amounts of traction in the mobile market, and that it will play a big role in the future of the web. True, HTML5 apps cannot compete with native apps in some areas (most notably graphics-intensive games), but they can do enough to be useful for most other types of apps. I recently heard someone describe the situation as "HTML5 can do 90% of the things that 90% of the apps do". For some evidence, check out Chrome's HTML5 store. The selection of apps there is huge, and it has more than its fair share of games as well - Including Angry Birds and Plants vs Zombies.

And since this will be based on industry-standards compliance that Mozilla is such a fan of, you can be sure that apps will have the absolute full HTML5 experience. Mozilla has claimed, for example, that it will be capable of running the full desktop version of Google Maps on the phone. If I had the full functionality of the web-version of Google Maps, I probably won't need the native app. 

Is Firefox finally "getting it"?

Most of the features that Mozilla announced were all technical brownie points (A W3C standard API, full ACID3 compliance etc...), but there were finally hints of things that showed that Firefox is finally "getting it". Competing in a commercial marketplace requires a lot more than producing excellent software. Mozilla is painfully aware that most recent mobile OSes have not succeeded - MeeGo, Symbian, WebOS, WP7 - and they are taking steps to be relevant in the highly competitive market. Firstly, Firefox OS will be deeply integrated with Facebook and Twitter, allowing users to seamlessly share, post updates and interact with friends. They've also lined up several operators around the world to carry the phone, and announced a firm launch date of Q1 2013. They've also tied up with Qualcomm to make the chips that will go inside these phones. Mozilla seems to be really making an effort this time to give Firefox OS a real chance for commercial success.

Will it work?

This is, of course, the big question. Firefox OS will be directly competing with Android, which already has enormous traction. There are also some organizational hiccups - A majority of Mozilla's revenues come from Google, and undercutting the Play Store (where Google makes a little money from Android) may not make Google very happy. Mozilla also made a claim - which I find hard to believe - that 75% of the apps on the Google Play store were already HTML5, and porting them to Firefox OS would be trivial. And to show everyone how serious they are, a Mozilla evangelist actually posted pictures of a Samsung phone running Firefox OS.

One thing's for sure though - Handset makers are desperate for competition in this market, to get away from the deadly grip that Android has in the smartphone market. I guess we'll have to wait till early next year to find out if Mozilla's new foray into the mobile world will work.

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