Firefox OS brings the Chrome approach to smartphones

BARCELEONA—Does a phone built around the Web have what it takes to stand up against the likes of Android and iOS? Mozilla seems to think so. On Sunday, the company announced the first commercial build of its mobile operating system, Firefox OS. With this open source OS, Mozilla is trying to create a new standard for mobile—one based off of Web technologies such as HTML5 and CSS.

Firefox OS for mobile

Instead of running traditional apps like most smartphones, Firefox OS runs optimized Web apps that can take advantage of a phone’s features. For example, opening Nokia’s Near maps on a phone allows the Web app to access the device’s GPS and location data, while a photo-editing web app may ask permission to look at and use the photos stored in your gallery. Mozilla’s reasoning is that most developers are proficient in writing Web code, so creating an app via HTML5 is a lot less taxing than having to write a native app from the ground up.

It’s an interesting idea, and it’s similar to the approach Google is taking with Chrome OS and its line of Chromebooks. Having a Web app that works with any device is great for us phone owners because we wouldn’t have to re-buy apps when moving from one mobile OS to another. The downside, of course, is that your “apps” become nothing more than glorified shortcuts to websites and you’d miss out on apps that were written exclusively for iOS or Android. As Microsoft can tell you, wooing app developers to build apps for your OS is hard—especially when more people are already focusing on iOS and Android. Several big name developers such as Zepto Labs (makers of Cut the Rope) and EA have already signed on to support Firefox OS, but only time will tell whether they continue to support the platform once it launches in the coming months.

Foxy phones

Mozilla has teamed up with several big-name phone manufacturers, including ZTE, Huawei, and LG, to create some of the first devices running Firefox OS. At Sunday’s press event, representatives from each company touted several pre-production handsets to show off the kinds of things Firefox OS can do. These handsets are aimed more at developing countries and are meant for people who have never before owned a smartphone. As such, they boast underwhelming specs in comparison to the high-end smartphones we see from companies such as HTC, Samsung, and even Huawei.

ZTE is just one of the phone makers Mozilla has lined up to build hardware that runs Firefox OS.

The first Firefox OS phones are expected to roll out to developing countries sometime in the summer, and Mozilla wasn’t saying whether or not it would bring the handsets to other countries like the US. Mozilla isn’t the first company to go after developing countries with lower-end devices: Many of Huawei’s phones here in the U.S. are budget handsets on pre-paid carriers, while HTC recently came out in saying it was changing its business plans to focus more on countries where most people still use feature phones.

With large companies such as BlackBerry and Microsoft failing to make much impact in the mobile market, Mozilla is in for one hell of an uphill battle with Firefox OS.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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