Market Insight

Mozilla & 18 operators challenge Google's smartphones with Firefox OS

February 24, 2013


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  • Mozilla unveils the first commercial build of Firefox OS and its "open mobile ecosystem" alongside numerous device, content and operator partners.
  • The 18 operator groups backing Firefox OS reach all parts of the world: América Móvil, China Unicom, Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Hutchison Three Group, KDDI, Korea Telecom, MegaFon, Portugal Telecom, Qtel, SingTel, Smart, Sprint, Telecom Italia Group, Telefónica, Telenor, Telstra, and VimpelCom.
  • Firefox OS enables a new content ecosystem based on web technologies such as HTML5 to deliver app discovery without downloads. The experience will be cross device and tied to the user's identity.
  • Firefox Marketplace will include app support from leading mobile media companies: Cut the Rope, Disney Mobile Games, EA games, Facebook,MTV Brasil, Nokia HERE, SoundCloud and Twitter.
  • Launch devices will be made by LG, TCL / Alcatel One Touch, and ZTE with Huawei to follow. All of the devices use Qualcomm chipsets. Sony Mobile has announced it is investigating Firefox OS, and has released a test software build for their existing Xperia E Android smartphone.
  • The first wave of Firefox OS devices will be available to consumers in Brazil, Colombia, Hungary, Mexico, Montenegro, Poland, Serbia, Spain, and Venezuela in late summer.

 

Firefox OS has to deliver a better experience for the same price as rival smartphones powered by Google's software. But it will struggle to be cheaper than competing Android-based smartphones because it uses similar Qualcomm-powered hardware. Even meeting its better experience aspiration will be hard because past mobile HTML efforts have struggled. Firefox OS devices must avoid falling into the same trap as Palm's WebOS, which also used HTML-based tools but delivered a sluggish end-user experience.

However, there is a large under-served segment where its backers are aiming Firefox OS. Nokia's 9m Asha shipments last quarter prove that there is a market for a smart enough touch-screen phone that is faster than entry level Android smartphones. Samsung sees this opportunity as well, which is the reason it launched a new range of smart feature phones branded 'Rex' ten days ago in India to compete with Asha.

To deliver a great Firefox OS experience Mozilla will need content too. While today's announcement includes many major global media brands, a lot more support will be needed to make a compelling proposition.

Smartphones rely on apps for their smarts. Without rich third-party media support a smartphone platform becomes little different to the feature phones that have long dominated mobile with regard to their business model and revenue opportunities. In addition, the apps announced so far for Firefox OS exist on Android too.

This need for content backers is the reason for Mozilla making available a preview of the Firefox OS Marketplace on Android: It ensures that app developers can start work now, ahead of the commercial launch, on smartphones that every mobile developer already owns.

But to differentiate on experience is a harder sell than competing at a lower price and so a high degree of operator backing will be critical for success. Mozilla needs those operators to actively market Firefox OS smartphones. It won't be enough if the operator partners announced today just range a device, do little advertising or point of sale marketing, and then passively wait and see what sales result.

So, given the above, why are so many companies backing Mozilla? Why do so many companies want to believe? Because a Google monopoly would hurt many players and because other challenger brands-Huawei, ZTE, TCL, even arguably LG given their results of recent years-are looking for other challenger partners to cooperate and grow their businesses.

Globally the smartphone market is an effective duopoly between Google' Android and Apple's iOS ecosystems. This creates risk for operators that their negotiating position with handset suppliers weakens. And, worse, that they are locked out of growth in content and services as the so-called over the top players become the mainstream.

In emerging markets the risk for operators is a monopoly, not a duopoly. The patchwork of fading Symbian and BlackBerry smartphone ownership threatens to be replaced by Google's Android alone. Windows Phone and Apple remain too expensive which is why Nokia chooses to use its Asha smart feature phones to compete with Android in price-sensitive markets.

Android presents device makers with problems too. Most handset OEMs use content and user interface designs to differentiate and yet Google is being increasingly aggressive with its own digital content business, cloud services, and 'pure Google' Nexus-brand devices. And, it's hard to deliver a great customer experience using Android on super cheap smartphones which is why Asha sales are increasing fast: They feel faster and smoother in use than Android devices at similar prices. Plus, Android itself is becoming dominated by a single OEM, Samsung, which again creates brand problems for the many other Android-backing OEMs. So, device makers like operators need alternatives to Android.

Strong operator backing is not sufficient to succeed in mobile, but it helps. The halls of Barcelona's Mobile World Congress are haunted by numerous operator agreements to innovate. The most recent relevant example to this was the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC) which aimed to be an operator app and content ecosystem to rival Apple. It petered out. Today's announcement has 18 operator groups as named partners, but only five have set a date and committed to a launch. More need to follow. One key difference with WAC is that Mozilla can act as a chair and organiser to ensure otherwise rival operators do move forward together on this initiative.

Firefox OS has a credible chance of establishing significant smartphone market share in emerging markets because of the price and experience challenges that rival smartphones face, and due to the relatively lower smartphone adoption in many of these countries. Firefox OS will aim to be the first smartphone for many consumers.

Like all the smartphone challenger plays we'll see this year the odds remain long for success. Mozilla has to execute perfectly to succeed with Firefox OS. Launch devices have to be faster than rivals and version one software must be reliable. Operators must back Firefox OS with marketing spend as well as words. Local content companies must develop compelling apps. It's a lot to do, but is far from impossible.

Mozilla and its friends are shrewd to target a different segment with a different business model than the established smartphone players. The smartphone market is very different to when Android and the iPhone launched, and so requires a different strategy, which is precisely what the Firefox OS launch aims to do.

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