Mozilla are previewing the new Firefox Operating System at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week. It’s a brave move as they’re up against some pretty chunky players.
The not-for-profit organisation has already signed up with a small Spanish firm called Geeksphone (hm, something tells us that brand name might be a little niche) creating two new Firefox smartphones called the Keon and the Peak. The Keon is a fairly basic model with a 3.5” screen, a 3megapixel camera and Qualcomm’s lower end Snapdragon S1 Processor. The Peak is a higher end model with a 4.3” display, an 8megapixel camera and a slightly more powerful Snapdragon S4. Although a release date for these two models is yet to be revealed; word has it that they will be available later this month.
The excitement around the two models isn’t exactly at fever-pitch. But why? Let’s start with a little background:
The Mozilla Foundation promotes openness, innovation and participation on the web and is best known for its Firefox browser which is developed by a team of volunteers. It is run as an open-source platform, which means its code is accessible and can be modified. The same principles that define Mozilla’s browser will be applied to their new Operating System, which is based on HTML5 web programming language. The system’s main USP is that it offers software writers more ‘freedom’ than its rivals.
If the OS takes off then it could propel the popularity of HTML5 apps which are able to work on any smartphone, unlike the native apps of Android and iOS. This has its pros and cons. Any popularity explosion of HTML5 apps will benefit developers who can write a single programme and then offer it across a range of platforms.
Running alongside the OS will be Firefox Marketplace; an app store where a range of apps will be available to users; including Twitter, Facebook and EA Games, to name just a few.
"The Firefox marketplace is web-based and will allow a device to do things differently," Jay Sullivan, vice president of products at Mozilla has said. "If someone searches for content it will show any apps that have that content. The web can be searched, indexed and crawled in ways native apps cannot. Developers are busy and don't always have time to learn a new programming language."
But is there room for a new operating system? Launching onto a scene that is heavily dominated by the two main systems; Android and iOS which are in turn challenged by Blackberry and Windows, leave many commentators believing that Firefox may struggle:
"Firefox is trying to bring the openness of the web to phones," said Nick Dillon, senior analyst at the consultants Ovum. "But the question is what does this offer over a cheap Android phone to a consumer looking to buy a low-end handset? On Android you’ve got Google services pre-installed and the 700,000 apps in its store, but Firefox OS isn't going to have these so will have reduced functionality."
Many view the HTML5 language as a "work in progress" and believe that for the time being native apps - those coded for a specific platform – have advantages over Firefox:
"Applications that require more processing power and the full capabilities of a phone - games for example - lend themselves more to native applications," said Mr Dillon.
"Although HTML5 has come a long way there are still gaps - like for notifications - that have not been fully standardised across all browsers. So if you are building an app that can alert users to the fact they have received a new message, it's easier to do in a native app if you want to ensure a consistent experience. The trade-off, of course, is that it will take more time and effort to make the app for each platform."
Despite this scepticism, manufacturers LG, ZTE, Huawei and TCL have all committed to building devices with Firefox’s OS and apparently more firms are ‘to follow’, Jay Sullivan, vice president of products at Mozilla has confirmed.
He compared Mozilla's venture into the mobile arena with that of the browser which has been a great success: "When we got to 10% market share people started listening to us. We had a seat at the table, people started copying our features."
And there are signs that this is already starting to happen with Firefox OS. Big brands have mentioned their partnership with the non-profit organisation:
Sony Mobile Communications' Chief Executive Bob Ishida said in a statement, "Our engineers are now working with Firefox OS Mobile and HTML5, evolving technologies which show great potential", while Twitter said in a blog post: "We're excited about the future of Firefox OS, and look forward to phones shipping with support for our new Twitter app". CEO of one of the largest mobile phone operators in the world, Telenor also said: "We see a great potential in an open Web-based operating system. With HTML5 at the core of every feature on this phone, you remove barriers to development that are common with existing mobile ecosystems. This opens the door to the wide community of developers, who now have an opportunity to contribute to a new kind of smartphone."
IDC mobile analyst John Jackson says Mozilla's efforts so far represent "a good start toward resolving the chicken and egg problem where developers will tend to hang back to wait for (traction) in the market while users wait for products that offer access to lots of third party services."
The first countries to get the Firefox handsets will be Brazil, Colombia, Hungary, Mexico, Montenegro, Poland, Serbia, Spain and Venezuela and here at OnRecycle we look forward to monitoring their progress. Who knows, perhaps Firefox mobiles will become the handsets of the future
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