We've said this before, but launching a new mobile operating system is hard work, especially in today’s competitive mobile minefield. Android and iOS currently hold the top mobile platform spots, but that hasn't stopped other players from entering the race. Consumers have more choice than ever, and pretty soon they'll be able to choose whether or not they'd like to switch to Mozilla.
Rather than jump into the shark tank, the non-profit foundation behind the Firefox browser (and now Firefox OS) has set its sights on penetrating markets where Smartphones doesn’t currently have a stronghold in order to pick up users who are just beginning to adopt a “smarter” mobile platform. The plan is to introduce an affordable family of low-maintenance phones that provide the same functionality as a popular high-end Smartphones.
Hitting the right markets
In February, Mozilla announced four hardware partners that it intended to work with to make this vision a reality: Alcatel, LG, ZTE, and Huawei. But in a conversation with Ars, Chris Lee, the Firefox OS product manager at Mozilla, confirmed that the number has now been bumped up to five, adding Sony to the lineup. “We’ll go after markets we think kind of have the best fit,” said Lee. ”We think there’s a ton of opportunity.”
The first phone to launch this summer will be the Alcatel One Touch Fire, which was shown off at this year's Mobile World Congress. According to CNET, the handset looks a lot like Alcatel's T'Pop, a low-end feature phone. There will be a couple of applications for it at launch, including games like Cut the Rope and Nokia's Maps application (which is also standard with Windows Phones). It also has 802.11n WI-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and 3G capabilities, and inside there is a 1GHz Qualcomm processor and 256MB of RAM, as well as a 3.2 megapixel camera and an expansion slot.
Mozilla's sights are currently set on emerging markets, especially Latin American countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela. "We want to reach Web users who are just coming online for the first time through mobile devices, a market segment which is particularly strong in [Latin America] and we believe that's the greatest region to initially target," Lee explained in an e-mail. The company also plans on launching in Poland as one of its five key markets, and it's targeting users with feature phones who are looking to purchase their first smartphone.
“We believe there is an opportunity and an unserved need in the market for this segment of users,” Lee said. “We know the next billion coming online are coming through a mobile device as the basis… Our goal isn't to compete head-to-head with the iPhone 5 or a Galaxy S 4 in the very beginning.” Lee also noted that the company doesn't have plans to hit the US with its Firefox OS until 2014. “There is interest, but as the platform matures and additional capabilities come, we know expectations in the US are different, and needs are different than in these other markets.”
Easy to update
The underlying Firefox OS architecture could also make it an attractive platform for American carriers and OEMs. As we explained in our hands-on in March, Firefox features three layers called Gonk, Gecko, and Gaia, which are all part of the software stack. Gecko refers to the “platform pieces” of the Firefox OS, which include the rendering engine; Gonk is a bare-bones Linux kernel and drivers; and Gaia is the user interface. Because of how they’re sequestered, Lee said it’s much easier to update the operating system in pieces rather than as a whole.
“We’re able to update portions of the OS where it limits the risk,” he says. With iOS and Android, where a software update must be deployed to the entire phone, “the risk is in the low level—touching the radio layer, touching the different components and drivers. We don’t necessarily have to go touch these areas to make changes. That helps partners feel more comfortable in updating more regularly.” He added that this may be why some carriers are not updating handsets as often as they should; if an update bricks the phone, customers will understandably be upset. “If you can reduce risk and changes and focus on the right areas, you can always keep people updated.”
Security and standardization
Mozilla ensures that its future users will feel secure on the Firefox OS platform. “There’s a balance between always keeping the user safe and having a good experience,” explained Lee. Firefox OS includes a framework where applications have access based on the permission model the app was built on. If it’s a system application, then it’s considered a verified application, which means that it has access to everything because Mozilla has already vetted it. If the app is from the marketplace, it’s then checked over by Mozilla to ensure that the developer isn't distributing malware, and the app is only given access to certain APIs. If the app wants access to the camera or location services, it asks the user for permission. “We could have 50 dialogues that keep you really safe, but you’re like, ‘I’m not ever going to actually use the app... I never got to the app because you asked me everything,’” Lee joked. “We try to make that trade-off in balance.”
The company has also submitted 32 Web APIs to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), most of which are still awaiting standardization. Each of the APIs relates to a part of Firefox OS’ hardware and software. “These are not Mozilla APIs, but Web APIs that would work over time across any Web browser or platform,” explained Lee.
The W3C standardization usually takes anywhere from several months to a year per API, and the closest to becoming a standard right now is a battery status indicator at the top of the page, with vibration and geolocation APIs next on the list. “The battery status API actually can be found on many phone implementations,” Mozilla Director of Research Andreas Gal said at a 2012 talk. The battery status can be presently seen in desktop versions of Firefox, while the latter two are now in the Candidate Recommendation stage, which means they require a bit more input, time, and testing from members and software vendors—basically, they're almost a step away from the final stage of standardization.
Lee adds that by having new APIs and new standards proposed and improved, it’s also a move forward for developers interested in the platforms. “Standards benefit developers because they can ensure [that] any app they develop for the Web will work across all browsers in the same way," he later explained in an e-mail. "However, even if a standard is not recommended by the W3C, it can still gain global adoption if two or more of the major browser vendors decide to implement it." Lee cited the fact that Samsung has included the battery status indicator API in its WebKit browser on its handsets as a prime example.
As for Mozilla's partnership with Spain-based hardware maker Geeksphone, Lee explains that those phones are developer preview models that potential consumers will not see. They are intended to help app developers effectively make applications for the platform by giving them a preview of the type of hardware future phones will have.
The two developer phones available are called the Keon and the Peak; both have 512MB of RAM. The cost difference between the two phones is a little over a hundred euros, which Lee believes is fairly affordable for someone who is just interested in dabbling with the platform. “You get the hardware... you get the software and updates as we make changes.” He suggested the Keon as the best pick for developers who are interested in pushing forward an application for the phones launching this summer.
Overall, the mission for Mozilla’s Firefox OS is to reach as many people as the company can, “where their privacy and their security and their experience isn't compromised because we have some other agenda to make money off of it.” Whether it will be successful remains to be seen; Mozilla will have to convince people that its low-cost, mid-range smartphone can offer all of what consumers want from the iOS and Android platforms.