Mozilla jumps into smartphone OS fray

Firefox maker plans to revolutionise mobile industry by targeting developing world

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 5:35am

Mozilla, the maker of the Firefox internet browser, will today launch its first smartphone operating platform and the handsets on which it will run in an attempt to shake up the way the mobile world does business.

Aimed squarely at the developing world, Firefox OS will run on handsets made by Chinese companies ZTE, Alcatel One Touch and others and costing less than HK$1,200.

Networks from across the globe, including Telefonica, which is big in Europe and South America, as well as Sprint in the US and Etisalat in Africa and the Middle East, will use the annual Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona this week to announce their launch plans for the Firefox phones.

Working the floors to persuade the all-important application producers to back his project will be Mozilla Corporation chief executive Gary Kovacs.

At first glance, he seems sure to fail. The world of personal computers has only ever had two operating systems that mattered, and smartphones are following the same pattern. Apple's iOS and Google's Android hold an 85 per cent share of the market, and Microsoft and BlackBerry are in a fight to the death to establish themselves as alternatives. Do we need a fifth operating system?

"We won't over time," Kovacs said. "Now the mobile world is busy, and it's because there is so much economic value to be gained by owning the platform. We are not trying to get in the middle of an operating-system fight; what we're trying to do is be the catalyst to drive more development around the open web."

Mozilla Corp is the commercial arm of the not-for-profit Mozilla Foundation, created in 2003 to safeguard what it calls the "open web", and the aim of its interventions is to change the behaviour of big corporations in a way that benefits consumers.

Starting in South America, Asia and Africa, working with developers whose customers are in the favelas and townships, Mozilla will arrive like Che Guevara to stir up a revolution that if it succeeds will filter back to the West.

It took 22 years for the first 2 billion people to connect to the web, but the next 2 billion would jump online in just five years, said Kovacs, and when they do it will be not via desktop computers but mobile phones.

Firefox will have an app store - which will charge a nominal commission - but it expects most apps to be downloaded directly from other people's websites, or indeed other app stores.

Kovacs believes Firefox OS does not need a massive market share to change the way smartphones are designed. "As we get into the 10 or 15 per cent range, people will have to listen, they will see this picking up steam and they will see this is the way."

The Firefox browser has 450 million users, and was until last year the second-most-popular in the world after Internet Explorer. They have both been overtaken by Google's Chrome.