Firefox OS sputters on the ZTE Open

The open source challenger is meant to be simple, but it crosses the line into the less than functional

As Microsoft's Windows Phone flails and BlackBerry 10 sputters, the smartphone market seems increasingly a two-horse town: Google's Android and Apple's iOS. But the open source world is hoping to provide a simpler option to reach the mass market, especially in poorer nations where high-end mobile platforms are out of most people's reach.

There's Nokia's Asha platform, but its OS is proprietary. Plenty of very low-cost Android phones are also available, but Android is not open source, as there is no community development aspect to the freely available software. Linux stalwart Canonical is working on its truly open source Ubuntu Touch, but it's still in beta. If you want an inexpensive open source smartphone today, your only choice is the ZTE Open, based on Mozilla's Firefox OS.

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Firefox OS's user interface is very much like that of iOS. The app screen works the same way, and there's a dock for frequently used apps. Even deleting apps works like in iOS: Tap and hold an app's icon and the X-in-a-circle indicator appears so that you can delete unwanted apps. The Home button closes apps and opens the app screen. You'll also see the iOS-like scrollwheel interface for picking dates and time. (Interestingly enough, the browser's Top Sites feature is like Mac Safari's -- clearly, the folks at Mozilla took their UI cues from Apple.) Firefox OS should be familiar to anyone who's used an iPhone but can't afford one or refuses to go proprietary.

There are of course differences. The notifications bar works like a cross between Android's and the new one in iOS 7 that Apple has demoed widely. Swiping to the leftmost screen opens not the search bar for your device but for the Firefox app store.

All in all, the Firefox OS hangs together sensibly. It's less sophisticated than the beta Ubuntu Touch OS but serviceable.

However, the Firefox OS shows way too many rough edges once you start using applications, and the very cheap hardware from Chinese manufacturer ZTE doesn't help either: The touchscreen is not very responsive, for example, so device interactions are difficult. Good luck typing in complex passwords! And boy, is the device slow, even for simple tasks like opening emails. Don't expect to finish every action; trying again is part of the experience.

But the cheap hardware isn't solely to blame. The HTML5 software that comes with Firefox OS, as well as the very limited set of apps in the app store, reinforce the notion that you can't do serious apps in HTML. Whether the fault lies with HTML or with the developers, the result is a smartphone that is not smart and is barely better than the so-called feature phones intended to provide only a modicum of functionality.

For example, no Firefox OS app that I tested supports text selection or copying. Then again, no apps I tested supported text selection or copying. All you can do is tap where you want the cursor location to be, then add text or backspace to delete text one character at a time -- seriously.

The Mail app supports just IMAP accounts, though it doesn't see all your mail folders. There's no POP support, and the ActiveSync support doesn't work with Microsoft Exchange, but just Hotmail and Outlook.com accounts; don't even think about accessing corporate email. If you want to add an attachment to a message you're composing, dream on -- you have to go to an app such as Gallery to select and share the app via email. There's no formatting for message text such as boldface.

The Calendar app supports Google Calendar, but that's it. And forget about repeating events or issuing or accepting invitations. The Contacts app supports no server-based contacts, just what you enter manually or have on a SIM card. The Messages app supports only SMS messaging, none of the free and popular instant messaging services.

The Firefox OS and its built-in app suite simply can't be used for business, even for small businesses relying on the Google Apps capabilities that nearly every device out there supports via native client or Web browser.

The Music and Video apps are similarly disconnected from the world -- you need to copy files to the SD card to gain access to them. That's a challenge on the ZTE Open because the heat sink partially blocks access to the SD card entry; it's very easy to bend the card when inserting it, and removing it requires a difficult, painstaking effort.

The Internet browser often didn't open links on Web pages, and it often took multiple tries for my taps on buttons or links to be recognized, which I assume is a flaw in the ZTE Open's touchscreen. But the HTML5test.com score of 397 for HTML5 compatibility beats that of iOS 6 -- there's hope that the browser experience might improve on a better device.

I downloaded and tested the Dropbox app, which did connect to my account but displayed an error message when I tried to view PDF or Microsoft Office documents. There's no way to add documents to Dropbox; you're limited to seeing what's in your Dropbox folder. The button at the top to download the Android app should have clued me in that the Dropbox "app" is just a Web page to your Dropbox storage.

The bundled Notes app, by contrast, starts to show what's possible. You can enter text, bring in images from the Gallery app or your camera, and even share your notes via email. The Twitter app I downloaded works like the Twitter apps on other devices, another example of what could be.

On the whole, Firefox is a woefully incomplete mobile operating system, and the ZTE Open will only confirm people's suspicions about Chinese manufacturers' poor quality. The ZTE Open costs just $80, but it's not a device for serious use.

The ZTE Open is aimed at developers, though it is sold in Spain commercially as well. It's best to think of this not as a serious smartphone choice even in the developing world but as a proof of concept that you pay to try.

Maybe next year, Ubuntu Touch will be out of beta and competing with an improved version of Firefox OS to show the world that open source can put mobile computing in reach of the whole world. But today, you're better off to look for a cheap Android device whose hardware may be compromised but whose OS can do the basics and more.

This article, "Review: Firefox OS sputters on the ZTE Open," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

Read more about mobile technology in InfoWorld's Mobile Technology Channel.

This story, "Firefox OS sputters on the ZTE Open" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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