Where can a Firefox phone fit into the smartphone show?

Mozilla is quietly bringing a very open, web-centered smartphone to the market. What's the pitch for a switch?

Lately it feels as though the media, the advertising, and the salespeople at cellular stores have settled into something of a smartphone groove. iPhones are the leading full-service package with style to spare. Android is the phone that comes in at many price points, designs, sizes, and fits wherever iPhone doesn’t. Windows Phone is, hey, quite interesting. And there are feature phones for people who don’t know what they want, but know they need email and Facebook. That’s your program, right there, and it has all the players in it.

Until Firefox’s maker, Mozilla, came along and announced that they were adding themselves to the cast. More than just a proof of concept, the “Firefox OS” already had at least handshake deals with Deutsche Telekom (owners of T-Mobile), Sprint, and a host of European cellular networks: Etisalat, Smart, Telecom Italia, Telefónica, and Telenor. The manufacturers behind Alcatel One Touch and ZTE intend to manufacture the first phones, with Snapdragon processors from Qualcomm. The commercial launch is slated for early 2013 in Brazil, and, presumably, phones will trickle into the U.S. later that year, through Sprint and T-Mobile.

Mozilla is aiming squarely at the cheaper side of the worldwide smartphone market. Consulting firm Deloitte believes sub-$100 kinda-smartphones will sell somewhere near the 500 million units mark. But here’s the key line about why Mozilla sees a place for its HTML5-based phone:

Due to the optimization of the platform for entry-level smartphones and the removal of unnecessary middleware layers, mobile operators will have the ability to offer richer experiences at a range of price points including at the low end of the smartphone price range, helping to drive adoption across developing markets.

Theoretically, a Mozilla phone would be open to any developer that can work with web standards and HTML5-based phone optimizations. Mozilla would only have to operate an “app store” in as much as it manages an add-ons repository for Firefox. You might call it a Chrome OS for phones: the phone boots up with a view of the web, and the web handles everything one would normally expect of dedicated apps, and, in theory, pretty much everybody’s invited to design those web apps.

Mozilla’s not alone in thinking there’s space at the cheaper end of the smartphone market. There’s Jolla, a Linux-based phone from Nokia expatriates. And Chinese phone maker Huawai is stating that it is “coming up with a phone,” as something as a hedge against future Android complications. Those sound more like a traditional phone OS gambit, though, and less like an attempt to out-open Android.

Can a cheaper, web-capable Mozilla phone outdo Android as the smartphone that is (seemingly) less costly than iPhone? Firefox, as a browser, was far more open, offered add-ons and developer tools, and pushed hard for adoption of accessible web standards over that era’s proprietary, Microsoft-driven tools. But what really got people into Firefox—speaking from a few years’ experience writing about every release from 2.0 and up—was its core differences. Firefox didn’t catch viruses and pop-ups everywhere it went, it implemented up-and-coming features like tabbed browsing quickly, and it was faster. So much faster.

Can Mozilla make a phone that feels fast, doesn’t have crud from its manufacturer and carrier tacked on, and is offered at a very cheap or free cost on major carriers? If so, you’re looking at a real opportunity. If not, you’re watching as a very smart and idealistic company tries to scale the thick, moneyed walls of an increasingly impenetrable smartphone fortress.

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