Why Firefox OS may bring balance back to the smartphone industry

Firefox OS is now going to happen. When it was announced a year ago, the carriers said they were in. Now they’re about to prove it: this summer, Telefonica will roll out handsets in Spain, Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia, and Deutsche Telekom and Telenor will do the same in Europe.

But will it succeed? To figure that out, we need to look at a number of variables, including the OS itself, but mainly what it represents for those all-important carriers.

The promised land

From an open standards perspective, the Firefox OS is as pure as it gets right now. The whole thing is based on HTML5 – it’s all about escaping Google and Apple’s walled gardens and frolicking freely in the wilds of the open web. Half the code was written by volunteers.

There will be an official Firefox Marketplace but everyone is free to roll their own, from carriers to games specialists. Any payment method can be implemented – that factor is not in the hands of any one platform sponsor. Apps that run on the platform will also be able to run on rivals that implement HTML5, such as Google(s goog)’s and Apple(s aapl)’s.

Carrier CEOs behind Firefox OSThe fact that the carriers are lapping this up represents a moment of supreme irony: these are the same companies – largely former monopolies – that were all about walled gardens, the companies that wanted to replicate the portal-first, AOL model in the wireless world. And what happened to stymie that scenario? Apple happened.

It was the iPhone that really loosened the carriers’ grip on their product. Suddenly they were just providers of voice and SMS and data, not suppliers of value-added services. The revenue cut from app sales now went to Apple and Google, not to the operators. The walls to their gardens had been obliterated, and someone had set up much more attractive walled gardens elsewhere.

So back we come to this idea of the open mobile web. This is an area where luminaries such as Tim Berners-Lee have been on the warpath, pointing out very real problems with the iOS/Android model. These include the inability to share app-based content in a standardized way, and the inability to search across apps. In short: the loss of the level playing field that web technologies represent.

Firefox OS is designed to solve those problems. Weirdly, we can now witness the former walled garden proprietors genuinely extol the virtues of openness. By promoting Firefox OS, they cannot regain control – however, they hope to prise some control from the hands of Google and Apple.

Not convinced? Consider these quotes from Sunday’s Firefox OS launch:

“Operators will benefit from higher control over the mobile ecosystem and consequently will have the opportunity to address specific customers.” – Franco Bernabe, Telecom Italia CEO

“This is a major step to bring balance back to the telco sector. The smartphone market is currently working backwards. [Customers are] not able to take an application from one platform to another. Duopolies are not beneficial for any industry.” – Cesar Alierta, CEO, Telefonica

“Suddenly we have something which is a bit more flexible.” – Jon Fredrick Baksaas, CEO, Telenor

“This is the beginning of the end of walled gardens.” – Marco Quatorze, CMO, America Movil

Will it work?

In Firefox OS’s favor, it comes readily equipped with many apps, including any mobile website written to behave like an app (think Twitter and Facebook). The fact that so many web apps are out there, and that writing one means addressing most mobile platforms at once, means Mozilla may just achieve its stated goal of getting developers to stop migrating to a purely native strategy.

In my brief hands-on experience with a ZTE Firefox OS phone, performance was slightly but not excessively laggy (bear in mind that the software is still not complete). According to the demonstrator, web apps apparently run better on Firefox OS than on other platforms because there’s less overhead – no Dalvik or anything like that. Will they run better than their native equivalents on the latest iOS and Android devices? Doubtful, but that’s not the point.

These initial Firefox OS phones are not powerful. They are sub-$100 handsets that will be going up against Nokia’s Asha range and low-end Android devices from Huawei and ZTE. Given that those cheap Android devices are not equipped to handle everything their platform has to offer, Firefox OS may indeed provide a better experience at that price point. Nokia is the player that’s most likely to get hurt here.

Considering that potential performance advantage and the apparent will of the carriers to promote them, these handsets seem to have a fighting chance in the developing markets where they will first be pitched. I find it hard to see them doing well in more mature smartphone markets, but the performance of the finalized software may prove me wrong.

The question here really is the will of the operators to see Firefox OS succeed. There is every reason to believe they are primarily concerned with wringing concessions out of Google, such as better deals on app revenue share. If they get that, perhaps they will pull back on Mozilla’s open platform.

But even if that happens, and the mobile industry achieves greater balance, well, job done.