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Firefox OS 'too late' to shake up mobile

Gregg Keizer | Feb. 26, 2013
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."


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