Firefox OS could set mid-range phone markets on fire

Boot to Gecko gets flashy name, new partners

Mozilla is moving forward with its Boot to Gecko (BtG) mobile platform, with an announcement today of a full-fledged browser-based operating system now known as Firefox OS.

Firefox OS is different from other mobile platforms, in that all of the apps running on it will be in HTML5 format, not natively developed. One key advantage of this approach is that any HTML5 app developed for any platform can immediately run on a Firefox OS device. This would give a big head start for the fledging platform launched last February.

Mozilla Corporation, the commercial vendor behind all thing Firefox, won't be hanging out there on a tree limb alone, either. At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona soon after the BtG launch, Telefónica and Deutsche Telekom has already cast their lot in for the project, soon joined by the likes of Sprint, Telenor, and Telecom Italia.

Today's announcement adds two more partners to that list: TCL Communication Technology (Alcatel) and ZTE have also pledged to produce the first Firefox OS devices.

"Device manufacturers TCL Communication Technology (under the Alcatel One Touch brand) and ZTE today announced their intentions to manufacture the first devices to feature the new Firefox OS, using Snapdragon processors from Qualcomm Incorporated… The first Firefox OS powered devices are expected to launch commercially in Brazil in early 2013 through Telefónica’s commercial brand, Vivo."

The HTML5 architecture won't just give app developers an easier vector to the new devices. It will also lower the costs for vendors and carriers to deploy their own software on the devices, which should put the price points for Firefox OS smartphones towards the lower end of the spectrum.

After watching the explosive growth of another open source mobile platform, Android, it's not hard to see why vendors and carriers are so interested in trying to spark another explosion with Firefox OS. It will be interesting to see how the platform performs in the world, particularly in light of the last big Linux-based platform that tried to punch through the Android/iOS duopoly on smartphones: MeeGo.

MeeGo was notably different from what BtG/Firefox OS will be: the HTML5 architecture being the biggest difference. But I have to wonder if Intel's rather tight hold as the primary commercial vendor of MeeGo kept that platform from truly flourishing until it was too late. That MeeGo was put on the back burners by Intel and Nokia and the codebase was picked up (along with LiMo) for the new HTML5 Tizen platform is indicative of the industry's new love affair with HTML5 ecosystems.

That love affair is a turbulent one these days: performance issues have reportedly caused Facebook to move away from its HTML5 app to develop a native iOS app for iPhones.

But Mozilla seems willing to take the HTML5 risk, and they have an excellent shot of making it work. After all, this is Mozilla, and one thing you can't take away from them is that they know how browsers work. That expertise will surely help them optimize HTML5 apps for Firefox OS devices.

Will Firefox OS be the Android or iPhone killer? No, that market's too strong to be seriously damaged by such an offering. (I still have my doubts that the Microsoft behemoth will even be able to dent Android/iOS markets.) But if Firefox OS does come in at a lower price point for lesser-featured devices, it could heat up the mid-range market: feature phone users who want something more, without the high cost.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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