Firefox OS Could Find Low-End Relevance Alongside iOS And Android

It probably won’t beat the big players in the mobile market, but thanks to its low cost, some interesting usability features, and its open, web-based SDK, Firefox OS could find a niche in the low-end and emerging markets.

Firefox OS is coming to the masses thanks to the ZTE Open, the first Firefox OS-based phone, which will be released in the U.S. and U.K. Produced by ZTE, the phone will come unlocked and cost just $80, a surprisingly reasonable sum. The company claims the phone is aimed at both first-time smartphone buyers and early adopters, but judging by the specs, there are very few features that would make a technophile lust after the device.

The more likely scenario in the crowded mobile OS market is that Firefox is able to steal some market share from Android, iOS, and other more proprietary operating systems with a no-cost system and a platform geared towards first-time smartphone owners and web developers. It seems unlikely that Firefox can compete with the likes of Apple and Google, but if it focuses on being easy to use and develop for, it just might find a niche on the lower end of the market.

One thing Firefox OS has going for it is it doesn't break any modern-day mobile OS conventions. A new user who has any experience with iOS or Android should feel right at home with the system’s standard app icons, familiar lock screen, and even contact import from Facebook. The major differences between Firefox OS and its more established competitors are either subtle or invisible to the user.

In fact, the OS’s biggest banner feature, adaptive app search, seems like a tiny enhancement compared to the complete overhaul Apple undertook with iOS 7. Billed as having the ability to “literally change and transform with the user to meet their needs,” the feature is essentially just better app discovery driven by search.

This may appear insignificant, but it might be the feature that helps Firefox find a niche among first-time owners. One of the biggest challenges both Apple and Google face with their massive app stores is surfacing relevant and useful apps to keep users happy and engaged. If even longtime smartphone users can become overwhelmed by the array of choices, imagine what it’s like for first-timers. Viewed in this light, Firefox OS’s adaptive search is perfect for getting these new smartphone users used to an app-based world without overwhelming them. It’s worth noting, too, that unlike iOS and Android, users never need to “install” applications in the traditional sense, meaning they don’t have to commit to downloading them. Instead, apps can be used once and then discarded, just like a webpage.

In fact, although it may be invisible to users, apps on the platform are essentially just web pages. The entire OS and phone experience is built on web standards such as HTML5, JavaScript, and CSS, instead of compiled languages. Users may not appreciate this, but web developers can build for the mobile OS using familiar tools--they don’t need to learn an entire programming environment. Not only are functions like browsing and messaging available via open standards, Mozilla has developed new web APIs for access to things like Bluetooth and battery status--traditionally only available in native apps--through the web.

Then there’s pricing. The initial promise of Android was that OEMs would be able to offer lower-cost phones using the OS because they didn’t have to pay a license fee, unlike Symbian and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile. After its rise in popularity, however, patent litigation began to erode the low-cost advantage, as some OEMs agreed to pay Microsoft and others to license parts of Android instead of fighting patents in court. Firefox solves this issue by using Web Standards and custom browser APIs instead of relying on patented technology.

Competing on price, ease-of-use, and developer convenience isn’t a bad strategy for targeting first-time smartphone owners and emerging markets. Firefox OS, with its easy-to-use discovery feature designed not to overwhelm, would seem to be a perfect choice for those who have resisted a connected, app-based phone out of technophobia. Meanwhile, the openness of the platform and ability for any OEM to use Firefox OS for free could make it the system of choice for low-cost devices in emerging markets. So while Firefox OS probably won’t take many users away from iOS or Android, that doesn’t mean it can’t still be successful.

[Image: Flickr user Mozilla]