May 21, 2013

It's not all Android and iOS

By Hisham Isa

Within a few weeks, Mozilla – the not-for-profit company that has largely made a name for itself in the Internet space – is set to make waves in the mobile industry with the launch of a new Firefox operating system for mobile phones.

The company is already offering free phones to developers who work on its apps.

Mozilla is not the only company trying to push Android and Apple out of the headlines . . . and off of consumers' phones.

Jolla, Tizen and Ubuntu Touch are also hoping to become top-tier smartphone operating systems.

In this article, I'll take a look at a few key questions as well as the implications of a changing ecosystem for consumers, developers and advertisers.

What's driving the competition?

In large part, the entry of new players into this arena is fueled by the growing size of the smartphone market.  Handset production is rising, up 4 percent in the first quarter of the year, as compared with a year earlier, to more than 418 million mobile phones.  And for the first time, smartphones outshipped feature phones.  A number of industry analysts, meanwhile, believe that feature phone users in many parts of the world are ready to upgrade to smartphones . . . if the price is right.

Why do we need a new OS?  Aren't Apple and Google good enough?

Do you ever become annoyed that an app works differently on your phone than on a tablet or that some key features are not available?  Well, the new mobile operating systems are geared towards a multi-screen experience.  They're largely based on HTML5, which should make it easier for developers to create apps without major compatibility issues.  Using HTML5 also opens up mobile to a large group of developers who have previously been focused on PCs.  Tizen is explicitly focused not just on smartphones and tablets but also in-vehicle infotainment devices and smart TVs.  Ubuntu says that the its mobile OS provides 'a full desktop experience' and that the transition between phone and PC is 'seamless'.

How is Firefox positioning itself?

Mozilla argues that the Firefox OS should lower the cost of low-end smartphones, since it isn't charging anyone a fee for using the operating system.  Plus, Firefox is open source, so anyone can build on the platform.  Handsets running on Firefox are expected to sell at US$80 – 100, before any carrier discounts or bundles.  (Note though that Google may launch an even cheaper smartphone in India at US$50.)

"Let's get this straight:  Firefox OS is not trying to compete on high-end devices," writes Mozilla VP Andreas Gal, "it will meet a global unmet need for affordable smartphones.  In so doing, it will create opportunity by opening up the mobile Web to those who have thus far been denied access due to the prohibitive cost of PCs and smartphones."

What are the key factors that will determine an OS' success?

While price points are important, there are two other factors that will largely determine the success or failure of new entrants into the OS market:  content and distribution.

Content.  Is there an ecosystem in place or on the way which will foster content generation?

Mozilla argues that since the new systems are based on HTML5, a core technology of the internet, there is a huge network of developers who can now work on mobile content.  "There are about 100,000 iOS developers and 400,000 Android developers, but there are 10 million Web developers," argues outgoing Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs.  "This is the start of what will undoubtedly be a third ecosystem."

But while there are a lot of Firefox developers working on PCs, Mozilla needs a development programme to encourage more apps for mobile.  Unlike Apple, BlackBerry and Nokia, they don't seem to have this yet.

Distribution.  How do you get the new phones to consumers?

In most markets, agreements with telcos have been key as the telecom companies sell subscription packages bundled with new phones.  Mozilla has tied up with at least 18 operators so far, as it prepares to launch handsets with the mobile OS in Latin America and Europe.  The first wave of countries chosen by Mozilla and its partner, GeeksPhone, are Brazil, Colombia, Hungary, Mexico, Montenegro, Poland, Serbia, Spain and Venezuela.

Carriers in a number of markets, though, are shifting away from the bundled handset model, which means that as Mozilla and the others expand, they will also need to find new ways of ensuring that consumers have access to their phones.

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