Mozilla's mobile Firefox OS seems designed for less expensive consumer phones in emerging markets, but its possible advantages could be valuable for some enterprises around the world.
The Firefox name is well known to the hundreds of millions of people who use it on their desktops and laptops. And for more than a year, Mozilla, the open-source organization behind Firefox, has been actively developing Firefox OS. It's a mobile operating system for accessing the Internet's HTML 5 web applications, rather than local apps stored on phones using traditional cellphone operating systems, such as iOS, Android, and Windows Phone.
Besides championing web standards and open-source software in general, Mozilla says phones using Firefox OS could be produced for less than other phones. As I wrote last March, without the overhead of a traditional mobile OS and heavy-duty applications stored on the phone, Firefox OS handsets could use less expensive hardware, such as running slower microprocessors. (See: Mozilla Develops New Mobile OS & Web App Store.) The theory is users could get smartphone-like capabilities for feature phone prices.
Last week, Mozilla announced two unlocked Firefox OS "developer preview" phones, called Keon and Peak. They include 4GB of internal storage, WiFi, GPS, a microSD card slot, and a microUSB port. The Keon has modest specifications with a 3.5-inch touchscreen, a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S1 processor, and 3-megapixel camera.
The Peak is more powerful with a 4.3-inch touchscreen, 1.2GHz Snapdragon S4 processor, and 8-megapixel camera on the front and 2 megapixels on the back. These specifications sort of belie the concept of using less capable hardware for cheaper phones, although both phones are designed for developers, not consumers.
The phones are manufactured by a small Spanish manufacturer, Geeksphone, in conjunction with the Spanish telecommunications giant Telefonica, which has been working with Mozilla. Many of Telefonica's cellular operations are in emerging markets, such as Latin America, so it's not surprising the company likes the idea of Firefox OS.
These two developer phones are slated to be available next month, but developers and anyone else (e.g., IT departments) champing at the bit to test the OS or write web apps may use a variety of resources, including downloading a Firefox OS simulator or the entire alpha OS to an existing phone.
Mozilla wants to get developers excited about creating apps, which can be distributed through the online Firefox Marketplace. While Geeksphone is producing developer handsets, ZTE and TCL Communication Technology (using the Alcatel One Touch brand) said they will offer consumer phones. Also, an executive of the Japanese cellular operator KDDI has said the company is looking at Firefox OS, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will offer a phone for subscribers.
It will be interesting to see whether Firefox OS-based phones make it to the commercial market and achieve any success. Mozilla's efforts remind me of Google's Chromebook laptops with Chrome OS, which only uses web apps. Although Chromebooks remain esoteric and mainly for techies (I have one), they have been deployed by enterprises and organizations, especially schools.
As I discussed in November, Chromebooks provide a variety of advantages, such as always running the most recent OS version, greatly reduced chances for malware infections, ease of IT maintenance and support, and inexpensive prices. (See: Enterprises Should Pay Attention to Google's $249 Chromebook.) If Firefox OS would offer similar advantages, they might be enough to encourage IT departments to test it to determine whether Web apps -- including corporate HTML5 software -- would perform well.
However, Google has devoted significant resources to Chrome OS, including automatically transmitting new builds to Chromebooks every six weeks or so, plus much more frequent beta versions for developers. Also, Google provides formal support for developers. Could Mozilla provide resources that are at least as good, preferably better, for enterprises?
It's too early to say, but even if enterprises don't offer Firefox OS handsets, they might be brought in by tech-savvy employees, especially if the phones are inexpensive. It's just one of the many new mobile operating systems with which IT departments might have to contend this year.
As I've written in this blog and in the past, I like Chromebooks for their advantages, but certainly understand their disadvantages. As for Acer's Chromebooks, I prefer the Samsung Chromebooks for a variety of reasons.
However, Acer said Chromebooks account for five to ten percent of its sales, and sales of Windows 8 laptops aren't doing well. That Chromebook figure might not be impressive in an absolute sense, but from the perspective of sales of a very niche concept that was laughed at, it's becoming less laughable. Also, Acer is considering selling Chromebooks in other markets.
Certainly there are problems with an all-Web cellular phone operating system, just as there with an all-Web laptop operating system. But just are there are cases for using Chromebooks, so there also could be reasons for a Firefox OS. I'm not predicting Firefox OS will succeed, but I think there could be useful features that might appeal to some enterprises, as I noted.
By the way, stay tuned for an upcoming blog where I discuss yet another new mobile OS.
Acer has hinted at some numbers regarding Chromebook sales. According to Jim Wong, the president of Acer, they have sold 50,000 units so far. I'm not particularly impressed with those stats.
I believe that Chrome OS and Firefox OS will provide developers a look into the future, but that the incumbent players will easily adopt these strategies to their own operating systems pretty easily. Anyone else agree?
Yes, we're seeing some companies developing products and services built specifically for Web access, although in many locations, the Internet isn't available or available at slow speeds.
I agree that phones should include better Internet voice/VoIP capabilities. For years the cellular operators have ignored voice, using it as a cash cow with no audio improvement. Airtime plans continue to emphasize large buckets of minutes -- that many people don't need -- in order to jack up the monthly price.
Very slowly some operators are offering HD voice. As I wrote about T-Mobile's new strategies, it will be offering HD voice. Sprint has been playing around with it in a single test market, and AT&T might offer it later this year.
As for truly unlimited data, no major cellular operator really wants to offer it, although, once again, T-Mobile will offer plans with no caps and no throttling; I'll believe it when I see it available for years, not as a limited-time marketing gimmick.
As for E911, I'm going to write a blog for another UBM site about new methods for communicating with emergency services.
After 15 years or more of the WWW, it seems like software and hardware manufacturers are finally settling down to building products that are web-oriented from the ground up. Initially, they built "web enabled" products, ones that were desktop but had Web Links added in, often in a cumbersome fashion. But now we've seen streamlining in all areas. The Chromebook is an entire laptop that only runs a browser. Microsoft announced it will be selling subscriptions to Office that runs only on the Web. Facebook has taken about 80% of web publishing activities and turned it into an easy to use format that can be used to create and read content by everyone from 8 to 80.
What I've seen of Firefox mobile seems to follow this trend. Another barrier to be broken would be really redefining the phone away from a two-way realtime voice system to a true Web device...along the lines of a tablet. That could mean for example only having a Wimax or LTE connection, unlimited broadband and maybe using text methods like speech to text even in a 911 call (it might actually work better...sending addresses and phone numbers and license plates is alot easier with text).
Firefox OS in an intriguing operating system, but it's still in the early stages and it remains to be seen whether anything much will come of it. It will require a great deal of support from handset manufacturers and cellular operators as well as ongoing updates from Mozilla.
That sounds like a good option for enterprises, as well as for Firefox. They have fallen behind their counterparts with the likes of IE and Chromed improvements. It will be interesting to see what happens next with it.
I agree that Microsoft was smart by charging a low price for Windows 8 upgrades. I have Windows 7 and I might keep it for a long time!
Of course, Apple has always charged much less for its Mac OS X upgrades. Also, Apple generally ensures that iPhone upgrades will work with the last two or even three phones. But Microsoft/Nokia angered lots of early adopters who bought Lumias and found they couldn't get Windows Phone 8.
It will be interesting to see the progress of Firefox OS phones, and whether they will receive timely and continuing OS upgrades. The OS vs. HTML5 app situation applies, as well. This assumes, however, that Firefox OS phones will obtain some success in the market, which isn't at all assured.
One of the things I think Microsoft got right in the Windows 8 offering was the inexpensive upgrade path (that ends today). Allowing people to upgrade to the latest software, even if they had stayed with a much older operating system, was a brilliant move.
Innovation is a great thing. But some backward compatililty is to be desired, too.
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