Mozilla's Firefox OS may kill feature phones, but can it survive against Android?

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Jason

Almost two years after open source software development initiative Mozilla first announced plans to build its own Web-based mobile operating system, Firefox OS finally reached consumers this week with the launch of the ZTE Open. Rolling out in Spain in partnership with carrier giant Telefónica, the ZTE Open boasts core services like voice calling, text messaging, email, Web browsing and a camera, as well as built-in social features like Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and Twitter integration, Nokia (NYSE:NOK) Here maps and access to Firefox Marketplace, which offers HTML5-based apps across a range of categories. It's also dirt cheap: About $90. "Now there's no price reason not to own a smartphone," HIS Screen Digest analyst Ian Fogg tweeted.

Mozilla has confirmed that the feature phone market is squarely in its sights. "For many customers, this will be the first smartphone they purchase," Mozilla Corporation co-founder and CTO Brandon Eich said at a briefing this week, Mashable reports. "We're pioneering a category… We are not aiming high and trying to crash into Fortress Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), into Fortress Google (NASDAQ:GOOG)."

Mozilla's manufacturing and operator partners are undoubtedly hoping Firefox OS will make a significant dent in Android's smartphone market dominance, however. With Samsung Electronics basically synonymous with Android devices, smaller manufacturers like ZTE and Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE:ALU) (whose Firefox-powered One Touch is hitting retail soon) are embracing Firefox to reduce their reliance on the Google platform. But there's nothing to say that "Fortress Google" can't borrow a page from Mozilla's Firefox OS playbook and offer low-end Android smartphones priced on par with--or even cheaper than--the ZTE Open. Mozilla is confident that won't happen: Eich contends that Android is too bloated to run on bargain hardware, explaining that "Android 4 doesn't run on 256MB of RAM... it really wants a gig." He added that the Android app ecosystem is now too far advanced to support any major streamlining efforts, explaining "Android can't really slim down... they'd break compatibility."

Google isn't even the biggest obstacle facing Firefox OS: To truly compete in the smartphone segment, Mozilla must nurture a thriving application ecosystem, and that means convincing developers that HTML5 is capable of delivering a quality user experience on mobile devices, especially low-cost models. HTML5 suffered a major blow last year when Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) dumped the standard in favor of native iOS and Android apps: "We've had a bunch of missteps on [mobile]," Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted. "The biggest mistake we made as a company was betting too much on HTML5 instead of native... We burnt two years."

According to Mozilla, developers can create Firefox OS apps from existing websites by adding an app manifest--a JSON file that describes the app, including its name, its icons and a human-readable description. But it isn't quite that simple, turn-by-turn navigation services provider Atlas CT tells TechCrunch. The firm plans to release its EverNav app for Firefox later this month and says building such a time and location-sensitive solution for HTML5 has pushed the functionality of the standard to its breaking point. "Things that are trivial in native application development, such as utilizing the GPS or running parallel processes, are much harder to be done efficiently in HTML5," Atlas CT explains. "Just to give you an example, one of the hardest tasks we had was to play sounds at exactly the right time to match the driving directions. Something that is extremely easy when developing native applications became a challenge in HTML5."

Needless to say, that is not what developers want to hear. Many will probably stay on the sidelines, waiting to see if Firefox OS can generate the kind of device sales that make the extra effort worthwhile. But can Firefox attract consumers without a wide array of apps? That's the challenge facing Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone and BlackBerry (NASDAQ:BBRY): Most of the most popular apps for iOS and Android are not available across those smaller platforms, according to a recent Canalys report. "The availability of key apps is a factor in motivating consumers' initial mobile device purchasing decisions, and it will only become more so," said Canalys Senior Analyst Tim Shepherd. "But moreover, it is a major factor in determining ongoing consumer satisfaction." Firefox is a different kind of mobile OS, but it faces the same old chicken-and-egg dilemma.--Jason

P.S. FierceMobileContent will not publish Thursday, July 4 in observance of Independence Day. Publication will resume Friday, July 5.

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