Mozilla promises Firefox OS phones in early 2013

Chinese companies to launch Mozilla-powered smartphones early next year, but is it too late for another mobile player?

Mozilla rebranded its mobile operating system -- which it's been working on for more than a year -- as Firefox OS to tie it with its best-known product, the Firefox browser.

Smartphones powered by the new Firefox OS will be manufactured by Hong Kong's TCL Communication Technology, under its Alcatel One Touch nameplate, and by China's ZTE. The first such device won't ship until next year, however.

Mozilla has also lined up several mobile carriers that have pledged support for Firefox OS, including Sprint in the U.S., Germany's Deutsche Telekom, Abu Dhabi's Etisalat, Smart Communications in the Philippines, Italy's Telecom Italia, Spain's Telefonica and Norway's Telenor.

Firefox OS is the new name for what Mozilla had pegged as "Boot to Gecko," or B2G, when it first announced the project in July 2011. At the time, Mozilla characterized the operating system, which was to be based on the Gecko browser engine that powers Firefox, as a "complete, stand-alone operating system for the open Web."

Mozilla has been wrestling with how it should tackle mobile -- its Firefox browser has been locked out of the most popular mobile operating system, Apple's iOS -- and it decided that it needed its own operating system to expand Firefox's reach and push its strategy of a standards-based Web.

Firefox OS has been built using HTML5, the still-developing standard. Each phone feature or function -- including calling and text messaging -- is a separate HTML application that runs within the browser-based operating system.

Mozilla has created new Web-based APIs (application programming interfaces) to allow developers to access device hardware.

In a Monday blog post, Mozilla and its new partners touted Firefox OS's functionality, especially its ability to run on entry-level hardware.

"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," Mozilla asserted.

Several of the carrier partners, including Sprint, Telefonica and Telenor, played up the lower-price theme, saying that Mozilla's Firefox OS would give them a way to offer cheaper alternatives to current smartphones.

"Firefox Mobile OS can help us drive an HTML 5-based platform for creating lower-cost smartphone options for prepaid, postpaid and wholesale customers," said Fared Adib, Sprint's product chief, in a statement on Monday.

Smartphone makers won't have to pay for Firefox OS, which is also open source and therefore can be customized by hardware manufacturers or carriers. That puts Mozilla's mobile operating system in the same category as Google's Android, which is also free.

Analysts were split about Firefox OS's chances.

"I think this is just too late to have any meaningful share," said Jack Gold of J.Gold Associates, in an email reply to questions. "They talk low-cost and minimal resources, but how is this different than Android moving downstream? [And] Intel/Nokia [went] this route too ... remember MeeGo, now Tizen? ... and it went nowhere quickly."

MeeGo was an Intel-backed operating system that has been merged into the Linux-based Tizen mobile operating system. The latter is also backed by Samsung.

Al Hilwa, an analyst at IDC, was more optimistic about Firefox OS.

"Mozilla's timing is great, given the precipitous declines in BlackBerry and Symbian, and the protracted reboot of the Windows Phone platform," Hilwa said in an email Tuesday. "It makes sense [for Mozilla and the carriers] to hit first with the international markets which are more competitive and price-sensitive. You can argue the market as a whole would like more choices than just Apple and Android."

But even Hilwa had doubts. "Carriers are obviously the gateways for operating systems, and nothing will happen without their support," he noted. "Their support, however, may not be enough. A strong ecosystem around a standardized mobile Web platform has to be cultivated."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or on Google+, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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