Is Firefox OS and their shockingly inexpensive entry point the key to a strong number three mobile OS?
The ZTE Open officially launches in Spain July 2. It's the first available consumer version of a Firefox OS device, and the Internet is buzzing about its debut. With good reason -- the phone will sell for $90, and include $39 of prepaid airtime. That makes it a $51 dollar smartphone, and will be an easy sell for all those feature phone users out there. We're looking to get one, if only to satisfy my own curiosity.
Meanwhile, Android has reached a 70-percent share of the global smart phone market. Android is especially strong in Europe, right where the ZTE Open is launching. That's a big Goliath to Mozilla's David, and in a world of cheap prepaid Android phones can the fledgling Firefox OS compete? It's all going to come down to one thing -- the apps.
You hear the term user experience thrown around a lot from industry experts, developers and bloggers. The fact is that a big part of that user experience comes down to having all the apps you need, and most of the apps you want. The App store was a big part of Apple's and Android's respective success, and Firefox OS will be no different.
Right now, there are 1,146 apps available in the Firefox Marketplace for the ZTE open when it launches tomorrow. You'll find a few of the big names like Twitter, Facebook and Evernote, as well as some filler apps like clocks and calculators. That's not going to cut the mustard when you can spend another $50 up front and have access to the 700,000 apps in Google Play. Developers are going to have to get on board, or Firefox will have a short lifespan as a mobile operating system.
The good news is that apps are easy to write because they are all HTML 5. The bad news is that the apps are all HTML 5, and that means no access to low level functions for things like games. Playing around, I can code a standard calculator application for Firefox OS in a couple hours. Mozilla really did make things easy here, and for many things using HTML makes perfect sense -- it's easy to code, offers fast production times, and there is already a huge pool of developers in place. But with all the apps being essentially rendered in a web view, performance is going to suffer without world-class hardware -- which the ZTE Open is lacking.
Make no mistake, we want Firefox OS to succeed. Mozilla is a cornerstone of open-source, and the folks there are great people with exciting ideas. Besides this, even we don't want to see a world where Android is the only choice for budget-minded consumers. A successful Firefox OS will spur Android innovation at the entry level, making better phones and software for everyone. A healthy dose of competition from a company like Mozilla is exactly what the doctor ordered to keep the mobile space on its toes and innovative. But things look pretty bleak in a world where cheap Android phones dominate.
We're watching Firefox OS closely, both because we're nerds who love this sort of thing and because of the impact it could have on Android. And we're hopeful that it can make one hell of a splash.