Mozilla Unveils Firefox OS Smartphones At Mobile World Congress

It started with a gecko, of sorts. It then became a fennec, a type of winter fox. Now, it is a smartphone, and soon it will be available all over the world.

We are, of course, talking about Firefox OS, the open source, Web-based smartphone operating system created by Mozilla. The company announced Sunday at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, that it has partnered with device manufacturers and mobile operators across the world to launch Firefox smartphones in 2013. 

Mozilla also officially launched the Firefox Marketplace, an app store featuring mobile Web applications and websites that will be able to operate on the new smartphones. Both the Firefox OS and Marketplace are optimized towards HTML5 development and open Web standards using Mozilla’s Firefox browser as its backbone. 

Mozilla claimed three initial manufacturers ready to build and deploy Firefox OS smartphones: LG, Alcatel and ZTE. These devices will be distributed to 17 global carriers in nine countries, including Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Serbia, Montenegro, Poland, Spain, Hungary and Venezuela. (Note that these are largely developing markets, and the list does not include the United States.) Since the announcement yesterday, Sony has also said that it would build and release Firefox OS smartphones in 2014. On the other hand, market leader Samsung has said that it is not interested in building smartphones for Mozilla (likely due to its investment in the similar Tizen platform).

Mozilla’s Evolution

The seed of Firefox OS came from Mozilla’s first ventures into the mobile browser wars against Android. Mozilla started with its rendering layout engine, Gecko, and applied it to Android as a third-party browser. Initially, the Gecko-boot of Firefox for Android was named Fennec. 

Mozilla then started thinking bigger.

As HTML5 has evolved into the newest open Web standard, Mozilla became a leading developer and evangelist for HTML5 websites and apps. The problem that Mozilla had with smartphones, though, was that it was not possible to tie smartphone hardware capabilities to mobile browsers. If you ever hear of the “Web vs. Native” argument when it comes to apps, the issue of tying Web browsers to smartphone and tablet hardware (like a camera, accelerometer etc.) is central to the issue. Mozilla wanted to fix that and created what it calls Web APIs (application programming interfaces) to access hardware through a browser. 

(See more ReadWrite coverage of HTML5.)

That goal was what ultimately led Mozilla to announce its own smartphones this year at Mobile World Congress. It has dedicated itself to open Web standards and mobile evolution, all in the name of consumer choice. Firefox OS smartphones will be extremely affordable and targeted at emerging smartphone markets where there is still a lot of potential to make a dent in the industry. 

Building The Marketplace

As shown in the rise of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, the name of the game in smartphones is apps. Mozilla plans on leveraging the power of the Web to build out its app store by enabling websites and app developers to create apps for the mobile Web that can easily be integrated into Firefox OS. 

To start, Firefox announced that a variety of content and app partnerships with the likes of AirBnB, Box, Disney Mobile Games, EA Games, Facebook, Pulse News, Sound Cloud, Twitter and others. Mozilla stated that it will have a variety of games, news and media, productivity and business apps.

When it comes to apps built for the likes of iOS, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry, many already have a core of HTML5 and Web-based technology powering them. Apps are often built as mobile websites and then “wrapped” with native properties to help them connect to device hardware before being deployed to the various native app stores. Mozilla’s plan is to eliminate that need to “wrap” apps and let developers build straight for the Web. The potential  is that almost any app that will work in browser can easily be deployed to the Firefox Marketplace, reducing the cost for developing and distributing apps.

We will see the first Firefox OS smartphones in developing markets later this year. Does Firefox OS excite you? Let us know what you think of the project in the comments.