Mozilla has announced further carrier and handset manufacturer support for its Firefox OS mobile operating system, with the first devices powered by the OS due to launch commercially in Brazil in early 2013 through Telefonica’s commercial brand, Vivo.
As the latest in a line of operator-backed mobile OS initiatives, the Firefox OS is a pared-down platform which relies solely on web technologies for its applications, outside of core phone functions.
Despite being an interesting academic exercise, it is unclear how the OS will be able to successfully compete in the crowded smartphone marketplace, even with the support of operators and handset companies. While Ovum does believe that the future of mobile application development is in web technologies, the limitations of the device combined with its projected cost means that the device will struggle to achieve commercial success.
Carriers try once again to own the platform
This new agreement is an extension of the partnership formed by Telefonica and Mozilla earlier in 2012 at Mobile World Congress. New operators joining Telefonica are Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Smart, Sprint, Telecom Italia, and Telenor. Additionally, TCL Communication Technology (under the Alcatel One Touch brand) and ZTE have agreed to manufacture the first devices to feature the new Firefox OS.
This is certainly not the first time operators have got involved with operating systems; LiMo and before that SavaJe were tried (and failed) attempts by operators to wrestle control of the platform back from handset companies and OTT players.
By extension, the Wholesale Application Community (WAC) could also be viewed in the same light, albeit focused on the application level rather than the underlying platform. However, as these previous initiatives have illustrated, operator support is certainly no guarantee of a platform’s success, in fact the added complication of having multiple partners could actually be detrimental to the success of the project.
Mozilla involvement in the project comes from fear that the company may get cut out of the mobile browser market. While a major player in the desktop market with around 25% market share, as Internet usage shifts to mobile its future is less certain. Unlike on PCs, there is limited support for third-party browsers on the more tightly controlled mobile platforms, with Android currently the only major smartphone platform which supports third-party browser runtimes. By building a platform around its mobile browser engine, Mozilla is trying to ensure it is not locked out of mobile entirely.
Market not ready for web-only mobile apps
Much like Chrome OS in the desktop, Firefox OS is an interesting academic exercise that will test the limits of what is currently possible with mobile web technologies. As outlined in our Devices 2020 research, Ovum believes that web technologies are the future for mobile development.
However, we do not think that the web-only Firefox OS will facilitate a dramatic change in the approach to mobile application development. There is already good support for HTML5 web technologies on the existing major smartphone platforms, meaning that there is little need for another platform in order to drive their adoption forward. Despite their shortcomings, native mobile applications currently fulfill a valuable role in the mobile ecosystem and are both understood and popular with consumers.
We therefore believe that the transition to web technologies will be more gradual than the wholesale switch proposed by Firefox OS, with consumers continuing to use a mix of native and web applications rather than limiting themselves one way or another.
Despite assurances, cost will be a major barrier to success
Another significant barrier to the success of Firefox OS will be cost. The Firefox OS devices will be targeted at emerging markets, where they will be competing with low to mid-tier Android devices. From a consumer perspective, the Firefox OS devices will offer less functionality than comparable Android devices, without access to embedded Google services and the hundreds of thousands of third-party applications available on Android devices.
In order to be competitive and attractive to users, the Firefox OS devices will therefore need to be significantly cheaper than similar Android devices. The consortium has clearly acknowledged this and Telefonica has stated that the devices will be available for $50 (€40) excluding operator subsidies.
However, we find it hard to believe they will be able to achieve this price point as they will be very similar in construction to comparable $150 to $200 Android handsets, and it is not clear where the savings will come from to drive the cost down to this level. The devices will still require a relatively high-end processor (the announcement pointed towards Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chipsets) in order to run HTML5 web apps.
Additionally, the devices will require all the other components normally found in more expensive devices, such as screens, memory, and cellular radios. Removing middleware components will free up some memory and processor cycles, but will not make a fundamental difference to the cost of the devices.
Nick Dillon is an analyst in Ovum’s Devices and Platforms team. For more information visit www.ovum.com/