Good luck with the new mobile strategy, Mozilla

Analysts can't see a way for Firefox OS to find any kind of meaningful success in mobile

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Al Sacco

Mozilla's decision to recast its mobile strategy won't matter, analysts said today: The open-source developer won't find any more success with a new plan than the discouraging progress so far with the old.

"Bottom line, I don't think Mozilla will be any more successful with this new strategy," said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates. "They've not had an impact in mobile so far, and I think their prospects are minimal in the future."


Gold and others were reacting to a report last week by that cited an internal memo from Mozilla CEO Chris Beard. In his missive, Beard laid out a new initiative for Firefox OS -- which previously has been pinned to ultra-inexpensive handsets -- that would, if executed, broaden the reach of its browser-based mobile OS.

"We will build phones and connected devices that people want to buy because of the experience, not simply the price," Beard wrote in the memo obtained. "We have not seen sufficient traction for a $25 phone, and we will not pursue all parts of the program. We will focus on efforts that provide a better user experience, rather than focusing on cost alone."

Mozilla first demonstrated Firefox OS in February 2012, and by late last year had partnerships with more than a dozen carriers, which put the mobile operating system on some of their smartphones. But the project has failed to gain ground: In April, Firefox -- which included both the Android version of the browser and Firefox OS -- accounted for just 0.6% of all mobile browser user share, a paltry percentage compared to Apple's Safari (39.5%) and Google's Chrome (30.1%).

Revamping Mozilla's mobile strategy won't be easy, Beard acknowledged, but he said that the organization had faced tough times before, and prevailed. "This is what we do: take on and triumph when pretty much everyone from competitors and pundits, to trolls and more think we're crazy," Beard told the Mozilla community.

Some of those pundits today just didn't see what Mozilla could offer in Firefox OS that would differentiate it from rival OSes -- and more importantly, their vast app ecosystems -- enough to drive people to pick a Mozilla-powered smartphone.

"I don't really see a reason why people would prefer Firefox OS," said Gold.

"When I see the strategy so far, including the latest, I see no logic in how this can succeed," echoed Ryan Reith, an analyst with IDC who focuses on mobile. "It will continue to be a three-vendor race -- Google, Apple and Microsoft."

Reith cited a host of factors working against Mozilla and Firefox OS, from the growth in low-priced Android smartphones in Asia and Africa to the overwhelming advantage Android and iOS -- and to a smaller extent, Microsoft's mobile Windows -- have in app breadth and depth. "Really, mobile is all about platforms," Reith said. "I don't see how anyone could compete with [Google, Apple and Microsoft]."

Neither Gold nor Reith thought that privacy, a major part of Mozilla's overall philosophy and a keystone of its mobile play, would be enough to separate Firefox OS from its rivals. "Smartphone users in developing countries don't have the luxury of focusing on privacy," said Reith.

Although Beard characterized Mozilla's smartphone strategy as necessary to forward its "Open Web" ideology, there are also pragmatic reasons for pushing hard on mobile.

Mozilla makes nearly all its revenue -- $314 million in 2013, the last year for which financials are available -- from deals with search providers in return for making them the default in the Firefox browser. But with a rapidly declining share of the desktop browser market -- in April, Firefox accounted for 11.7% globally, down almost a third in the 12 months prior -- Mozilla has been looking for new revenue generators.

Along those lines, Mozilla has launched an in-browser advertising project that will present all Firefox users with small ads based on their browsing history.

Beard said that Mozilla would "aggressively" invest in Firefox OS, but in the same memo cautioned that the organization would not compromise on its principles. "We will say 'no' to opportunities, even if they make good business sense, if they do not further our mission," said Beard.

Reith didn't think Mozilla had that liberty. "I see Mozilla's decline as inevitable," he said.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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