By Edward C. Baig
You wouldn't think we'd need a new mobile operating system for smartphones, what with the current dominance of Android and iOS, and challenges from BlackBerry and Windows. The folks at Mozilla beg to differ. At Mobile World Congress, in Barcelona, Mozilla, which is best known for its Firefox Web browser on personal computers, is previewing Firefox OS, an "open mobile ecosystem" aimed at smartphones around the world.
Mozilla plans to launch the new operating system in global markets where consumers are transitioning from so-called "feature phones" (an oxymoronic name if ever there was one) to smartphones. The first wave of Firefox OS devices is expected to arrive this summer and reach consumers in Brazil, Colombia, Hungary, Mexico, Montenegro, Poland, Serbia, Spain and Venezuela. The U.S. is on the roadmap too, but availability is likely to come later.
Sprint is the only one of the 18 announced mobile operators that plan to support Firefox OS that is likely to be familiar to most American cellphone users, an operator roster that includes América Móvil, China Unicom, Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Hutchison Three Group, KDDI, KT, MegaFon, Qtel, SingTel, Smart, Telecom Italia Group, Telefónica, Telenor, Telstra, TMN and VimpelCom.
But Mozilla does plan to offer some familiar apps as part of a Firefox Marketplace that will simultaneously launch with the new operating system. The app list (or outfits that plan to supply apps) include AccuWeather, Airbnb, Box, Cut the Rope, Disney Mobile Games, EA Games, Facebook, MTV Brasil, Nokia HERE, SoundCloud and Twitter.
Mozilla says people will be able to use an app one time without actually having to install it. The idea is that by consuming an app on demand, you'll be able to determine if this is the kind of content you want on your smartphone.
Even so, it is worth begging the question of whether there's room for another OS? Mozilla Senior Vice President of Products Jay Sullivan maintains that there is and says a major advantage of Firefox OS is that developers don't have to learn something new, given their limited time and resources. Indeed, developers can build Firefox OS apps using familiar Web technologies such as HTML5. "We expect to see lots of amazing apps people love built for Firefox OS because more developers are already creating for the Web than for any other platform," Sullivan says.
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. It's hard to understate the strategic significance of emerging market positions for virtually all competitors in the OS or mobile device domains."
The challenges may be even greater the U.S. "It's not clear to me that there will be much initial appeal in the U.S.," says Jackson. "Having said that, I think the U.S. is an opportunistic market for Mozilla and Sprint for now, and will have to see how the offer is packaged and promoted."