Firefox OS 'too late' to shake up mobile

Carriers care more about the alternative to Android, iOS than will consumers

Analysts today were skeptical that Mozilla's push into mobile with Firefox OS would meaningfully change the game.

"The chances of Mozilla Firefox OS making good in mobile phones are about as good as WebOS making a comeback in smartphones," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, referring to the mobile operating system abandoned two years ago by Hewlett-Packard, sold today to Korea's LG Electronics for use in smart TVs.

"They're just plain too late," Gold added. "If they had done this two, three years ago...maybe."

On Sunday, Mozilla -- best known for its Firefox browser -- previewed the first commercial build of Firefox OS and announced commitments from four handset makers and backing from 18 mobile carriers. Today, one of four smartphone manufacturers, China's ZTE, said its first Firefox OS phone would go on sale mid-year in Columbia, Spain and Venezuela.

Mozilla's Firefox OS strategy aims at emerging markets where smartphone penetration remains small, and where cost is a primary purchasing factor. Any thought of tackling countries where iOS and Android have effectively locked up the market are far down the road: Mozilla has declined to be more specific about its plans for the U.S. other than to say Firefox OS phones may show in 2014.

Although Carolina Milanesi of Gartner gave Mozilla an "A" for effort, she too was dubious that Firefox OS could really change the landscape.

"Absolutely, they get an 'A,' because compared to a year ago, they've put out a lot of effort," said Milanesi today from the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona. "But consumers don't want another operating system. What they want is a better device."

Firefox OS traces its roots to a 2011 project dubbed "Boot to Gecko" (B2G), a reference to the Gecko browser engine that powers Firefox. In July 2012, Mozilla rebranded B2G as Firefox OS, and promised that smartphones running the lightweight operating system would appear the following year. Firefox OS is based on HTML5, the popular website and Web app language, and Mozilla has created new Web-based APIs (application programming interfaces) to allow developers to access device hardware from the browser-based OS.

There are others trying to break the Android-iOS stranglehold -- Tizen for one, Ubuntu for another -- but Milanesi saw Firefox OS as the leader for now. "If you look at all the alternative OSes that have come out of this [emerging market] mind set, Mozilla has done the most ground work, and is a step ahead of the rest," she said.

And she accepted Mozilla's argument that Firefox OS could make cheaper smartphones possible. "On the hardware side, you don't have to put so much power on the device, don't need such a powerful processor, so you can lower the cost," Milanesi said. "That means carriers won't have to put so much toward subsidies."

Milanesi speculated that Firefox OS phones might do best in markets where customers primarily make and take calls, and have much less interest in using them as Internet-connected devices. Even so, she struggled to identify what Firefox OS offered that Google's Android, which already runs on a broad price-and-performance spectrum of handsets, does not, other than it isn't' Android.

"Mozilla clearly getting traction both on the operator and [smartphone] vendor side building on the need by both to become less reliant on Android," Milanesi tweeted.

Gold was markedly colder to Firefox OS than Milanesi, but identified the same reason why Mozilla's been able to attract carriers and handset makers.

"Consumers may not really care what the operating system is, but carriers do. They want choice, because then they can go back to negotiate with Samsung, with Apple," said Gold. "[Firefox OS] would give them leverage. That's why they want a third OS."

At MWC today, carrier officials said almost exactly that as they complained that mobile OS vendors -- meaning Google and Apple -- made fortunes on their backs, and that Firefox OS may inject enough competition to shake up the current business models.

"We need a more balanced relationship with the OS owners," Vodafone Group chief executive Vittorio Colao said at the conference. "With more competition, the relationship will be more balanced, and eventually, the winners will be the ones who have the best products, the lowest prices, and the highest willingness to invest, with us, in the channels."

That last didn't go unnoticed by Gold. "The carriers would love to get back to where they were five, six, seven years ago, when each had their own app environment, and the only apps for their [handsets] were those from their own stores," Gold explained.

Mozilla makes it clear it views Firefox OS as a kind of mobile "Reset" button: On its Firefox OS website, Mozilla touts "Greater participation in the value chain" and "Ownership and control over relationships with customers" as two of the four benefits to carriers and other partners.

"But how many times have we gone through this?" asked Gold, ticking off rival mobile OSes that have come and gone. "You can be a niche player, there will be plenty of niche players, there will be a little adoption here or there, but these guys have no chance at anything significant."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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