Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs went to Barcelona this week for Mobile World Congress, and he's not there checking out the new ASUS PadFone. He went to discuss the prospects for Firefox OS, his company's soon to release entrant in the battle for 3rd place in the smartphone OS wars. The thing is this: Mozilla has a chance.
If you've ever used a Chromebook, or tried to emulate Chrome OS on your computer, then you get what Firefox OS is all about. It's a browser running on top of a bare bones Linux OS, with all of your apps being web based apps. After 2+ years with a Chromebook, I like Mozilla's chances to pull this off, and their strategy to get to the top of the second tier of OS platforms seems pretty solid to me.
The path to gaining traction for Firefox OS will be to start the ball rolling in developing countries, with Kovacs telling the crowd:
"I find it impossible to understand how 3, 4, 5, or 6 billion people are going to get their diverse needs satisfied by one or two or five companies, no matter how delicious those companies are. Is the farmer in the Indian countryside going to have the same needs and requirements as a lawyer sitting in New York?"
That's a very fair point to make, but on the flip side, is the farmer in the Indian countryside going to have an always on mobile phone data connection like the lawyer sitting in his office in New York? This is a browser based OS, and while offline access to apps makes it all work, a browser based OS needs a connection.
Kovacs revealed that Mozilla has convinced 18 mobile network operators and 4 device manufacturers to throw in with their effort. The carriers listed on their website are: America Moovil, China Unicom, Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Hutchison Three Group, KDDI, KT, MegaFon, Qtel, SingTel, Smart, Sprint, Telecom Italia Group, Telefonica, Telenor, Telstra, TMN, and VimpelCom. And they've already convinced Alcatel, ZTE, LG Electronics, and Huawei to build devices for their OS, with support from Qualcomm.
A lot of those carriers serve what are considered to be developing markets, though there are some bigger names thrown in there as well. Sprint being on that list makes a US release fairly certain, and Deutsche Telekom is on there too. ZTE and Huawei are no surprise, as they'd love to change their businesses to sell more devices under their own brands and shed their ODM status.
Mozilla seems to have the big chunks of the developing markets pretty well covered out of the gate. They still have to convince that farmer in the Indian countryside that Firefox OS on midrange hardware is a better fit for his needs than Android is running on similar devices.
There's also another issue facing Mozilla as it tries to kickstart Firefox OS: Apps. Check with Microsoft and Blackberry, you need lots and lots of apps. Not shovelware apps made by 3rd party developers in the basement of their homes, you need key 1st party apps, and you need them out of the gate. Some of the big guns like Facebook, Twitter and Google already have good mobile browser solutions in place for their sites, but Kovac answered the app question by saying:
"There's a Web for that."
Yeah, there is, but the web doesn't love mobile browsers like it does desktop browsers. He went on to say:
"This is the Web. We're just taking it to mobile. Incumbent with that is 10 million developers already ready to go."
Well, yeah, they're ready to go, but so far most of those 10 million developers haven't really done much to make a great experience for their services in the mobile browser. The web has been available on mobile for years, and Firefox has had a mobile browser available on Android for some time now. Websites don't render any better in Firefox on my Nexus than they do in Chrome.
To be sure, Mozilla has an uphill battle to beat out Windows Phone and Blackberry for a seat at the table of mobile OS relevance. Many sites like Facebook, Twitter and even some Google properties are designed for, and even work very well in the mobile browser. Many, too many sites simply don't.
If any tech company today knows what it takes to stare a giant in the face and take him down, its Mozilla. They are the company that shoved Microsoft and Internet Explorer off the top of the browser heap and opened up the space up. They are also the company that failed to hold the ground that they gained on IE, as Chrome has since come along and deflated much of the momentum that Mozilla spent years building.
As a Chrome OS lover, I'm absolutely pulling hard for Mozilla to make this happen and bring Firefox OS to the USA on really great hardware. My Lumia Windows Phone 8 phone is begging to be replaced.