Mozilla's Firefox Mobile OS to battle an Android monopoly

The corporate chiefs of Apple, Google and Microsoft betting billions of dollars and thousands of highly-paid engineers on their competing mobile operating systems. Despite these high stakes, Mozilla, the non-profit organisation behind the open source Firefox web browser, is planning to take a seat at the table with its own smartphone software.

The first pictures of the underdog emerged this week and enthusiasts can now download early versions to test. At first glance, it looks every bit the modern smartphone operating system, with an interface that recalls elements of iOS, Android and Windows Phone.
The question is whether Mozilla, with 2011 revenues of $121m, can really compete with the big three, who between them enjoyed sales of more than $200bn last year.
Mozilla’s reason for taking on the task is clear. Its share of the desktop market is falling, thanks mainly to its biggest benefactor (via the deal that makes Google the default search engine for Firefox users), Google, and its rival software Chrome, which has enjoyed a rapid rise to become the world’s most popular web browser.
Meanwhile, as Mozilla loses ground on PCs, its corporate rivals are carving up the mobile market. Smartphones and tablets are now widely viewed as the most important computing platforms.
“A lot of the innovation, or even most of it, that we’re seeing now is happening in smartphones and tablets,” said Ian Fogg, a mobile analysts at IHS Screen Digest.
Mozilla’s mission is to popularise web standards and open source software, but just creating alternative browser apps for iOS, Android and Windows Phone is not going to do it.
Only Android rules allow Mozilla to offer a full mobile version of its browser anyway; Apple and Microsoft exercise stricter control over what capabilities third party apps can have. What’s more, although data is hard to come by, it’s clear only a small minority of smartphone owners ever switch from their default browser app.
So to stay relevant, Mozilla is creating its own mobile OS.
Like Android, Firefox Mobile OS, is based on Linux, the operating system that anyone can contribute to or adapt because the source code is free. Unlike Google’s leading mobile operating system, however, Firefox Mobile OS will not play host to “native apps” that are specially developed for it.
Instead, it will use the new web coding standard, HTML5, to allow developers to create apps that, in theory, could work on any operating system. Other smartphone operating systems can run web apps already, but they are typically less capable than native apps as they are unable to plug into the advanced software and hardware features. Mozilla says Firefox Mobile OS will be different.
“[It] unlocks many of the current limitations of web development on mobile, allowing HTML5 applications to access the underlying capabilities of a phone, previously only available to native applications,” it said.
That may make app creation simpler and so appeal to developers, although the crucial question of how they will get paid for their work remains open.
Mozilla has already won support for Firefox OS from another key constituency: mobile networks. This month it announced big names such as Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Sprint, and Telefónica were on board.
“The operators want there to be competition in smartphones,” explained Ian Fogg. “They don’t want a world where Apple and Google dominate everything.”
In the West, that is already the case, and given the financial mismatch, there is little chance of Mozilla matching the established players. But opportunities abound in the developing world, where cheap Android handsets are only now reaching the market, and Apple and Microsoft devices are attainable for only the very richest.
Mozilla is overt in its focus on this relatively untapped seam, boasting of the ability of its technology to “deliver compelling smartphone experiences at attainable prices”.
“As billions of users are expected to come online for the first time in the coming years, it is important to deliver a compelling smartphone experience that anyone can use,” said Gary Kovacs, Mozilla’s chief executive.
So while it might seem there is no space for yet another smartphone competitor here, industry watchers are keenly interested in Mozilla’s progress.
“There’s a risk Android could become a monopolistic player in these developing markets,” said Ian Fogg. “RIM is still popular there but it has real problems.”
“Mozilla have decided they aren’t going to go head to head with iOS and Android here. They’ve decided the way they can compete in mobile is to jump to the next big thing which is these developing markets.”
“They might find the Firefox Mobile OS is really good enough to match the established players down the line, and then they’ll have the innovator’s dilemma.”
But that is some years away. The first Firefox Mobile OS handsets are due out in Brazil early next year.


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