Mozilla, the nonprofit behind the Firefox web browser, will launch its first Firefox smartphone tomorrow in Spain. It's not clear when the phone is coming to the United States, and you might not want to buy one even when it does. But you should root for it to succeed anyway.
Starting at just $3 per month for a contract through Telefonica’s Movistar network—or $90 without a contract—the ZTE Open isn’t an iPhone-killer or an Android-killer. It’s something far more interesting: a bet on the future of the mobile Web.
Mozilla’s mission has always been to promote the health and openness of the Web. Against the odds, its scrappy Firefox browser has managed over the years to hold its own against corporate rivals like Microsoft Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, and Apple Safari. In fact, the latest release of Firefox just unseated Chrome as the fastest browser on a series of tests by Tom’s Hardware. That’s impressive and inspiring.
But as more of the world does its computing on phones and tablets, Mozilla risks being squeezed out, no matter how good the Firefox browser is. More importantly, the Web as an open platform could suffer in the long term as developers spend more of their time and energy building apps specifically for mobile operating systems like iOS and Android. The Web isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, of course. But given the choice, developers may focus on, say, sprucing up their iPad apps rather than optimizing the mobile versions of their websites. That would be great for iPad users, but not so great for those who can’t afford an iPad. And it’s certainly not great for openness, since Apple controls what is and isn’t allowed into its ecosystem. Android is technically open-source, but it's not nearly as open as the Web, and every minute spent developing an Android app is one not spent bringing the Web into the mobile age.
Enter Firefox OS. Rather than relying on developers to build new apps specifically for Firefox phones—which would be a nonstarter, given all the other options on the market—Mozilla built an operating system focused on Web-based applications. Click the Facebook app, and it takes you not to a native app, but to Facebook’s mobile website. Ditto Yelp, Accuweather, et al. The phone can store your settings and cached information for those sites separately and locally, like it would for native apps, and it does come with a suite of core apps like a camera, contacts, maps, and calendar. But when you download a third-party app from Firefox’s Marketplace, you’re basically downloading a shortcut to a mobile website. An “adaptive app search” allows you to search for, say, “sushi” and pull up a list of Web-based apps relevant to your search, like Yelp, Google Places, Urban Spoon, and Open Table.
From the user’s perspective, the experience may seem clunky compared to the seamlessness of loading apps on the iPhone 5, especially given the cheap hardware. But despite some recent bad press, Mozilla is convinced that HTML5 has a bright future on mobile devices, especially when freed from some of the strictures of the Android operating environment. And as Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich pointed out, the Firefox phones are aimed at markets like Brazil where an iPhone is prohibitively expensive for most people. They will be competing instead with the cheapest Android and BlackBerry devices. Even there it may be an uphill battle for market share. But Mozilla may at least have an edge over BlackBerry in that it isn’t asking developers to build new apps from scratch—just optimize their mobile sites and make them easy to access from a Firefox phone. If nothing else, Firefox phones might represent an appealing upgrade for some portion of the hundreds of millions of people around the world who are still using feature phones rather than smartphones.
Besides, Eich said at a launch event in San Francisco today, “Mozilla was never about taking over the market. If we ever got near that, we’d demand a recount.” Which is exactly why the Firefox phone is an underdog worth rooting for.
The ZTE Open and a second Firefox phone, the Alcatel One Touch Fire, will be available through Telefonica in Spain, Colombia, and Venezuela in the coming months. Deutsche Telekom and Telenor are slated to bring their own Firefox phones to several Central and Eastern European countries soon as well. There’s no set schedule for a U.S. release, but it could come in 2014 if the phones catch on.