MWC 2014: Mozilla Says Firefox OS Will Fill The Entry-Level Vacuum

Andreas Gal, Mozilla’s vice president of mobile, has told TechWeekEurope that the non-profit organisation’s announcements at Mobile World Congress (MWC) were designed to demonstrate the progress that Firefox OS has made over the last year, and how an open source platform can help operators.

“Last year was a great initial launch of Firefox OS,” he said. “This year is basically focused on growth of Firefox OS.”

Following the launch last year, Firefox OS devices are now available in 15 different countries, while ZTE, LG, Huawei and Alcatel have all brought relevant devices to MWC, including the first Firefox OS tablet.

Feature phone battle

Although these devices all use powerful Qualcomm Snapdragon processors, Mozilla has not abandoned its plan to provide entry-level phones on low-power chips.  It also revealed a turnkey reference design that could eventually result in $25 smartphones.

“It’s not a device targeting America or Western Europe. It’s targeting southeast Asia, maybe Africa, and other parts of the world where cost is of extreme importance to open up new populations to smartphones,” he said. “We’ve started to create a product where you get the full smartphone experience, even though it’s an entry-level experience. We’re competing head on with feature phones.”

Gal sees feature phones as Firefox OS’ main competition and is amazed that the majority of smartphone manufacturers aren’t recognising the commercial opportunity.

“Billions of people will move from a feature phone to a smartphone,” he said. “It seems that no one else is focusing on this segment. iOS is at the opposite end of the price spectrum  and with every new version of Android you need more hardware and is moving towards the higher end. So everyone is kind of vacating the biggest market opportunity by volume.”

Expanding the range

Gal says expanding the range is important, but so is making devices more affordable. Last year the minimum configuration for Firefox OS was 256MB of RAM, now it is 128MB.

“In one year, we halved our minimum memory requirement. Today, Firefox OS is the most memory-efficient mobile operating system. That’s the reason we can offer partners these very affordable smartphones.”

The current range of devices is targeted at developing markets and none of them are available in the UK, but Gal sees no reason why they shouldn’t be sold over here.

“There’s no reason for HTML5 technology to only be suitable for the entry level price point,” he said, adding that the desire to create an affordable smartphone was not incompatible with making a more premium handset for Western Europe. Telefonica and Deutsche Telekom are launching Firefox OS handsets in Germany and Mozilla will monitor how the existing devices are received.

Mozilla has also made the Firefox OS Flame available to developers – a 4.5-inch reference device which allows to test applications in a real environment. It is powered by a 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, making it ideal for testing out intensive applications and games, while its RAM capacity can be altered from 1GB to 256MB to see how apps would work on less powerful hardware.

The next version of Firefox OS will add support for LTE, Dual SIM and Firefox accounts, but Gal says the ability to add technology to the platform is the real reason it will appeal to operators and manufacturers in developed markets.

Open source advantage

Mozilla is working with Deutsche Telekom to add privacy features to Firefox OS, as this is what its customers want. With other platforms, they are subject to Apple and Google’s control and it is those companies who decide whether to include the technology.

“As a German, I have very different feelings about privacy than most Americans,” said Gal, explaining why Deutsche Telekom was so keen to add such functionality. “Where I was born, there is a constitutional right to privacy.”

If Deutsche Telekom wanted to do the same with Android, it would have to lobby Google to include such functionality. Gal doesn’t call Android open source, referring to it as “available source” instead.

“Firefox OS on the other hand is a completely open system, Mozilla is a non-profit organisation,” he said. “You can see why operators are so excited about working with Firefox OS. We give them co-ownership of the future.

“For the first time there is an ecosystem where there is not just one company controlling it.”

But Firefox is just one of four open source mobile operating systems hoping to make an impact on the global smartphone market, with Sailfish OS, Tizen and Ubuntu all positioning themselves as alternatives to Android.

Gal does not see any of them as competition because Firefox OS has already launched, and because it is targeting different market segments.

“It’s very hard for me to see them as a competitor until they’ve launched,” he said. “There’s only so much you can put in a press release.”

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Firefox OS MWC 2014

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Steve McCaskill

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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