Mozilla is taking aim at Apple and Google with its Firefox OS

The giant Mobile World Congress trade show in
Barcelona was drenched this year in orange, the
official color of Firefox, the world’s second most
popular Web browser. Its booth was swamped,
and its harried pitchmen ran around in tangerine
sneakers because this year Barcelona was a coming-out party for Firefox’s new, new thing: a
free, open-source operating system for
smartphones. Wait, you say. Do we need another smartphone
OS? Samsung and Intel are pushing their own new
open-source mobile OS called Tizen, and behind
it is a scrap heap of open-source projects like
Maemo, LiMo and MeeGo, none of which has
come within hailing distance of Google‘s Android
or Apple‘s iOS, which together control 85% of the market. Even mighty Microsoft has managed
only a 3% market share with its Windows
Mobile. Gary Kovacs is undaunted. As the CEO of
Mozilla, the not-for-profit foundation behind
Firefox, Kovacs says the world needs his OS and
the open web for two reasons: It reduces
carriers’ dependency on Apple and Google, both
of which siphon 30% of app revenues. It’s also a lower-cost way to get the next 2 billion people
onto the Internet. Firefox’s mobile OS is not a traditional operating
system like iOS or Android. It’s written entirely
in HTML5, the underlying programming
language of the Web. Apps run from the Web
and hook into the phone’s hardware and data,
and can also run offline. Firefox OS can make do with half the phone memory Android needs, so
carriers can price a smartphone for well under
$100, or half the price of a low-end Android
smartphone. Mozilla put more than 500 engineers on the
project for two years. Kovacs might recoup costs
by extending Mozilla’s PC-browser search deal
with Google (the bulk of its $163 million in
revenue in 2011) to mobile. Kovacs says he’s
talking with Google; the search giant wouldn’t comment. A passel of carriers joined Kovacs onstage in
Barcelona. Telefonica and 17 others plan to sell
Firefox phones in countries like Brazil, Mexico
and Poland starting this summer. They’ll be
made by the likes of LG Electronics, ZTE,
Huawei and Sony. Strategy Analytics predicts Firefox will be on 1% of global smartphones by
the end of 2013. Early models by GeeksPhone of the forthcoming
Firefox OS “[Firefox] affords us the chance to compete with
our services … and not have to go through a
costly distribution channel,” says Yotam Ben-
Ami, Telefonica’s director of open-Web services.
“It doesn’t need 40% to 50% market share. It
needs to establish itself as a relevant third alternative.” Some 8 million programmers know how to write
in HTML5, Mozilla says, while several hundred
thousand have made apps for iOS and Android.
Telefonica has dozens of engineers working with
Mozilla and has set aside a marketing budget in
the double-digit millions to promote it in Latin America and Europe this year. Kovacs has to keep expectations low. Firefox
could change the mobile industry by subverting
the app economy, much like Netscape crashed
the walled gardens of AOL almost 20 years ago
with the open Web. We won’t see finished
phones until this summer. If they’re hard to use or slow, consumers might decide a nicely tended
garden is worth a little more money.
Forbes Tech

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