mozilla firefox os launch telefonica 15 640x360Earlier today, Mozilla and Telefonica have jointly announced the commercial availability of the first Firefox OS handset in Spain: the ZTE Open. We also had an opportunity to look at the Alcatel Onetouch Fire, another smartphone among the many that were demonstrated during Mobile World Congress earlier this year. Mozilla has done quite a bit of changes since, so we were curious to get our hands on the public release of Firefox OS.

If you are not yet familiar with Firefox OS, it is a web-based operating system and all the applications are either written in JavaScript and stored locally, or are straight websites which run in a browser environment. The OS concept is close to what Google has done with its Chromebook line of products in the sense that the device technically boots in a light version of Linux, which then launches the Firefox browser. From there, everything happens in the browser.

Who would be Firefox handsets buyers today?

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"FIREFOX OS CURRENTLY TARGETS FEATURE PHONE USERS, GEEKS CAN MOVE ALONG FOR NOW"  

When we talked to them in San Francisco today, Mozilla and their partners have been very clear: this first batch of smartphones are designed specifically to address a price point that is not always well covered right now (like 65 Euros, without a contract). Typically, power-users and tech enthusiast can come back later as there is no interesting “specs” to salivate on at the moment. Both smartphones look cute and quite simple, and Mozilla hopes that they will attract today’s feature phone users. Basically, switching from a feature phone to Firefox OS would mean getting a better web, email, maps (powered by Nokia) experience. It’s that simple.

How does it feel to use Firefox OS?

mozilla firefox os launch telefonica 10 640x360Unfortunately, I didn’t have time for a “deep dive”, but I played with both the ZTE Open and the Onetouch Fire. They look and feel like entry-level phones, and while Firefox OS offers most of the “core” amenities of modern smartphones, you should expect the user interface and the overall responsiveness (“performance”) to be relatively slow.

"THE FIRST FIREFOX HANDSETS REMIND ME OF THE GOOGLE G1"  

In some ways, this reminded me of the Google G1 (the first Android handset), except that the G1 was sold for $175 with a two-year contract. If you want a really inexpensive smartphone and don’t care for the latest bells and whistles, you may want to check one of these and see if it works for you.

Brendan Eich (Mozilla CTO) has confirmed to me that they intend to address the tablet market, and that Firefox OS will also power faster smartphones in the future. At that time, power-user may want to check again because Firefox OS allows users to uninstall any application, including those form the carriers and handset makers. Now, this an idea worth sharing.

A web-based OS sounds great but what if I’m offline?

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"THE PRIMARY FUNCTIONS DO NOT REQUIRE AN ALWAYS-ON DATA CONNECTION"   This is a very legitimate question since Firefox OS is basically a web browser. What happens if you board a plane or if you are not connected? We haven’t had time to try every scenario, but Mozilla told me that all the “core” apps are run locally, and that data like music, contacts, etc… is also stored (or cached) locally, so there is no need for a permanent connection when it comes to the main functions.

For web-apps, it depends on how the developer deals with the fact that wireless data may go away at some point, so the answer is “it depends”, but with the likelihood that many web apps aren’t quite ready for offline as of now. In time, this will get better since Mozilla works with developers to improve this. To be fair, many native apps on Android and iOS also require some connectivity, but unlike websites, most have been built with the idea that there is an “in plane” mode.

What’s the goal for Firefox OS?

"TODAY, THIS IS ALL ABOUT LOW-COST. TOMORROW, MOZILLA WILL AIM HIGHER"   Right now, Firefox OS aims at enabling the industry to provide low-cost smartphones for those who want to upgrade from a feature phone to a smartphone. This is not easy, since this is literally 10X cheaper than a device like the Galaxy S4. So far, Mozilla has gathered a lot of attention and goodwill from the industry. Besides the affordability, which directly interests the customers, there are two other reasons why the industry supports it.

First, handset makers like having options and many feel “too dependent” on Android. Additionally, Android (even more so since 4.0) is not so great when it comes to running on low-specs handsets. Windows Phone does much better, but their ride has been bumpy since it has been hard to get end-user demand.

Secondly, wireless carriers love the fact that Mozilla is basically easier to work with than Google is. From what industry insiders told me, Mozilla tends treat partners as “peers” while Google has a more dominant stance. As a result, carriers may get more opportunities to build a relationship with the ebd-users through apps, app sections in the Mozilla store or carrier apps stores. At the moment, nothing suggests that Mozilla intends to turn their store into a money machine.

Firefox OS Screenshots

Conclusion

The real entry of Firefox OS in the smartphone world is very exciting. First of all, this is a radical departure from the native-code approach used in nearly all modern mobile OSes today, so we will keep a close eye on this. This a bold approach and Mozilla has managed to gather quite a lot of support around it, so it has a good chance of succeeding. Remember that the measure of success for Mozilla is not to “dominate” the industry but to push it forward.

At the moment, you can expect to see more Firefox handsets appearing in regions where an affordable pricing is critical. Eventually, Mozilla-powered smartphone should make their way into the USA, but “when” is a question that still has no answer. Just be patient…

What do you think of Firefox OS?

Filed in Cellphones >Featured . Tags: alcatel, firefox, firefox os, mozilla and zte.
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