Does Firefox OS Have A Chance? Maybe

Firefox OS, the mobile platform being developed by Mozilla, is not something I'm not convinced will ever matter, although I could be wrong — and I kind of hope I am. After all, another platform, more developers, more competition and the promise of truly open web standards for mobile devices are all good things. The odds, however, appear stacked against its success. 

The Odds Firefox OS Faces

Presently, Google's Android dominates the smartphone market, accounting for approximately 70% of all new smartphone sales. In its short life, Android has amassed 48% of the global smartphone market. Apple's iPhone follows with 19%. Both platforms are supported by highly capable, deep-pocketed tech giants, and both platforms are growing their overall base. There may simply be no room for a viable third platform.

Not that Firefox OS is only facing off against Android and iPhone, of course. Blackberry was the third-best selling smartphone platform in 2012, and it has recently launched its own new operating system, BB10. Next comes Windows Phone, which despite the considerable backing of both Microsoft and Nokia this OS continues to generate only middling interest.

Then there are numerous other smartphone operating systems, including some with significant corporate sponsorship. Samsung and Intel, for example, continue to develop Tizen. Amazon has its own version of Android. There are also Bada, Jolla, Aliyun, webOS, Ubuntu and others, including the hybrid Nokia Asha platform at the low end. 

The Opening

Mozilla Corporation, which oversees Firefox OS development, remains undaunted, perhaps with good reason. While Android and iPhone continue to grow, other smartphone platforms are either in decline or treading water. If there's to be a viable third smartphone platform — which, of course, is far from a certainty — it could still be Firefox. 

As CNET reported from last month’s Mobile World Congress, Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs is enticing developers and carriers with visions of a smartphone OS that could appeal to the next "2 billion smartphone users." 

I find it impossible to understand how 3, 4, 5, or 6 billion people are going to get their diverse needs satisfied by one or two or five companies, no matter how delicious those companies are. 

Is the farmer in the Indian countryside going to have the same needs and requirements as a lawyer sitting in New York?"

Truly Open And Web-Based

The primary appeal of the Firefox OS is that it is built using web standards, including HTML, CSS and JavaScript. Mozilla has deep roots in the web, which are clearly reflected in its vision for the new OS:

Built entirely using HTML5 and other open Web standards (and) free from the rules and restrictions of existing proprietary platforms.

App developers, particularly those already familiar with Mozilla and Firefox, can leverage these open standards to effectively transform a web page into an app. This could theoretically jumpstart usage. The Mozilla’s Developer Network offers developers a guide to get started. This could prove crucial. As CNET remarked earlier this year: 

Using this browser-based approach poses some technical challenges, but it also means that a huge amount of services already work on the phone, at least in principle, simply by pointing the phone at a Web page.

Moreover, Mozilla just announced a series of app workshops to encourage development of new apps — albeit with clear specifications:

If you know how to build mobile app experiences with HTML5 and JavaScript, we’re looking for you —especially if you’d like to develop apps in Spanish, Polish or Portuguese! If you’re fast and focused, this is the time to take first-mover advantage.

Admittedly, there are no guarantees that developers in any of these regions will embrace the platform, web standards and workshops notwithstanding. It's not merely a question of revenue potential. As ReadWrite noted last year, Facebook famously reversed course on web-standard HTML5 and went native.

Firefox OS ensures handset makers a platform free of current licensing restrictions — and costs — while simultaneously providing consumers with an alternative to the two major platforms.  And it could be time for a truly open, accessible — and alternative — platform. For example, ReadWrite noted how Samsung has become so dominant within the Android ecosystem that other phone makers are struggling to compete.  

Keep Hope Alive 

The first smartphones running Firefox OS are expected to be released this summer, initially in South America, then Asia.  ZTE, LG, Huawei and Sony have all announced smartphones based on the operating system. Two developer preview phones have recently been released.

The Mozilla Foundation appears fully committed to the platform. The organization is wisely focusing on South America first, then Asia — where low-cost devices and mobile web services are commonplace. At last month's Mobile World Congress, per CNET, Mozilla announced support not only from select device makers but also “18 mobile network operators across the world.”  Several of these, including Telefonica and Deutsche Telekom have substantial footprints.

I do not expect Firefox OS to ever achieve above 5% of the smartphone market, and probably less. But Mozilla appears ready to make me a believer. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock