You may have heard of the new Firefox OS for smartphones being launched later this year. What is it, and what does it mean for smartphone users? We break down the important points to introduce you to the basics of Firefox OS.
The newest kid on the smartphone block, Firefox OS is a product of the Mozilla Foundation, the same people who make the Firefox browser, Thunderbird email client, and others. It’s currently available to developers — both as development tools and early model smartphones — and is expected to be available on consumer devices later this year. Like Google’s Android, Firefox OS is based on the Linux kernel, an open source, non profit platform: in essence, a base that lets anyone who wants to build their own operating system on top of it. Firefox features a fairly simple icon-based touchscreen interface, with multiple home screens and a pull-down notification shade.
If you’re thinking right now that Firefox sounds a lot like Android, you’re not wrong. They share core code, open source philosophies, and even a very strong visual similarity at first glance, right down to the icons. But while generally Android is seen as the “open” mobile OS of the major players — allowing for easy “side loading” of apps not found on Google Play, letting companies make devices without even having to license the OS from Google, etc. — according to the developers of Firefox OS, even that isn’t nearly open enough. Firefox OS is designed to be a completely open platform, even to the extent of ignoring some of the conventional features of current smartphones.
For your convenience, we’ve broken down the basics of Firefox OS and what it means to you into a handful of basic facts that will help you get to know the newest potential option for smartphone buyers.
1. Its similarity to Android is skin deep.
While they’re both based on Linux and have a similar user interface, that’s where the commonality stops. For starters, Firefox is designed to not have a centralized app store and ecosystem, quite the opposite of the way that Android revolves around Google Play. This is part of Mozilla’s “open” philosophy, the idea that the OS shouldn’t be tied to anything. No central app store, and in a sense, no “apps.” Firefox does away with “native” applications as Android and iOS use them; all apps for Firefox, and even the Firefox interface itself, are written in HTML5, essentially making them web apps that you can download. This has the effect of making potential apps simpler, but also easier to develop, since anyone with a working knowledge of HTML5 can build one without having to learn another language. This encourages localization, since every carrier and every country could create their own ways of distributing apps, without having to deal with a single centralized source with specific rules, like Google or Apple. Which leads us to…
While Firefox OS is likely to show up on consumer smartphone models in the US and Europe, the largest target demographic is low cost phones in emerging markets such as China, India, and Africa. Current Firefox developer smartphones sell as cheaply as $120 without any carrier subsidies; the eventual target prices may be as wildly low as $50 unsubsidized. Obviously, that kind of price is incredibly cheap even for a low margin device, and demands equally low specs. The $150 Geeksphone Keon, a Firefox OS demonstration model, sports only a 1 GHz single core processor, 3.5 inch 320 x 480 screen, and 4 GB of memory; the cheaper models will be far below that. Still, the Firefox OS is a platform designed for low specs, specifically to enable these sorts of extremely affordable smartphones to proliferate, and to get to the people in poorer countries and areas that couldn’t otherwise buy a smartphone and get online.
3. It’s not without competitors.
As inexpensive a phone as Firefox is designed to run, there is already competition to be had. While “licensed” Android phones — the kind that feature Google Play and the rest of the Google ecosystem — aren’t likely to be hitting a $50 unsubsidized price point any time soon, generic (and mostly Chinese manufactured) clones of them are already stretching towards those kinds of prices, something which may end up hindering Firefox from taking off. A larger, more popular OS with more apps could effectively eat Firefox’s lunch before it gets there, since buyers might be persuaded to spend their money on a phone which can run the many available Android apps, even if it costs a few dollars more. Or possibly not; it’s still hard to say what buyers in emerging markets — or even low-end Western markets — might decide that they want. The only sure fact is that the popularity of an OS is generally an indicator for how many, and how good, the apps are for it.
4. Firefox OS is completely nonprofit.
Unlike Google Android — which makes money via license fees from major manufacturers and off of Google Play — Firefox OS isn’t designed to make money. Ever. The Mozilla Foundation is a nonprofit group, meaning that they don’t have a profit motive for any of their software; the money they use to develop apps comes from donations, and from mutually beneficial deals. One example of the latter is the deal Mozilla has with Google, who provides the vast majority of Mozilla’s funding in exchange for Google being the default search engine on the extremely popular Firefox browser. (In case you’re wondering, it’s an arrangement not very likely to be bothered by Firefox taking on Android in the low end smartphone market, since Google seems inclined to let the low end of the Android market fend for itself.) But it’s possible that this non-profit nature could make Firefox OS attractive to buyers who want to avoid the commercialization and potential for things like smart advertising or Carrier IQ that come with Android, especially as facial recognition and biometrics become a bigger part of the platform.
While it may be mostly aimed at emerging markets in the Eastern hemisphere, that’s no reason to assume that there isn’t potential in the West. A $50 smartphone — even if it doesn’t do as much as the $300-plus-contract iPhone or Droid model — could appeal to a lot of customers in a cash-strapped economy. Especially with the attempts by carriers to eliminate subsidies for smartphone service, there’s definite room for inexpensive third party smartphones to fill the bill. The fairly successful Google Nexus 4 — a “cheap for its specs” smartphone priced at $299 without contract — points to the interest in relatively cheap no-contract smartphones like those that Firefox would make available.
Everything else aside, even in the best case the Firefox OS has an uphill battle to fight. Despite its positives, the simple fact is that being the newest OS in an arena that already features two titans — Android and iOS — as well as two market hungry would-be kings in the form of Windows Phone and Blackberry 10, makes it extremely hard to get a foothold in the kind of devices that most manufacturers want to sell, mid-range to high-end smartphones with profit potential. Whether it can break into that market, or whether it can carve out a healthy following in the low end market either in the US and Europe or overseas, is an open question. But there’s no doubt that Firefox is facing a tough battle in what’s becoming an increasingly competitive smartphone market.