The giant Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona was drenched this year in orange, the official colour 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 percent of the market. Even mighty Microsoft has managed only a 3 percent 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 for two reasons: It reduces carriers’ dependency on Apple and Google, both of which siphon 30 percent 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 pro-gramming 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 makes do with half the phone memory Android needs, so carriers can price a smartphone for well under $100, 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 percent of global smartphones by the end of 2013. “[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 percent to 50 percent market share. It needs to establish itself as a relevant third alternative.”
Some 8 million programmers know how to write in HTML5. Only 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.