Firefox OS hits retail – now let’s see how far openness can take it

The first Firefox OS smartphone – unless you count Geeksphone’s developer-oriented efforts — will go on sale on Tuesday in Spain. The device is ZTE’s Open, and the carrier will be Telefónica(s tef)’s Movistar. Telefónica will also launch Firefox OS handsets in Colombia, Venezuela and elsewhere in the coming weeks.
The big selling points for Firefox OS are the cheapness of the devices – Movistar will sell the ZTE Open for a paltry €69 ($90) including tax and €30 credit for pre-pay customers – and the openness of the operating system, which is entirely based on HTML5.
As we’ve explained before, there is an extraordinary amount of unity among operators when it comes to Firefox OS. The platform offers an alternative to Google(s goog)’s Android and Apple(s aapl)’s iOS, and therefore represents a potential way for the carriers to claw back some control over the devices they sell.

HTML5 boost

The openness of Mozilla’s Firefox OS could also benefit consumers, as HTML5 apps will run on those other platforms, too. As Telefónica España CEO Luis Miguel Gilpérez said in a statement on Monday, users can expect “the choice to consume the content they want and the flexibility to be able to take it with them when they change devices.”
The launch is probably also a good thing for the developing HTML5 standard. While HTML5 is used to create a lot of apps, big Android and iOS developers tend to go for native technologies in order to gain a performance boost. A successful Firefox OS would encourage more developers to address open web technologies, and thereby improve them over time.
As for the ZTE Open, the handset has a 3.5 inch HVGA screen, 256MB of RAM and 512MB of internal storage, although a 4GB microSD card comes in the package too. The phone has a 3.2 megapixel camera with built-in filters, and Nokia(s nok)’s HERE platform – opened up to third parties earlier this year — provides the location-based services component.
A wide variety of content partners, from Spanish banks and newspapers to Wikipedia and The Weather Channel, are also on board for the launch. Other manufacturers lining up to release Firefox OS phones include Sony(s sne), LG(s lg), Huawei and Alcatel. Deutsche Telekom(s dt), America Movil and other carriers will provide the channels.


So, will it fly? The strength of Android and iOS certainly sets a pretty high barrier to entry in the smartphone market at this point, but that doesn’t mean things can’t change. If the cheap Firefox OS phones perform better than cheap Android phones, they may stand a chance.
Also bear in mind that the low end of the market is a very different beast from the high end. I just came back from a vacation in my home city of Cape Town, South Africa, and I was surprised to see how strong BlackBerry still is there.
This is a function of the deals BlackBerry has cut with local operators – data is relatively expensive there, and BlackBerry phones come with free data usage – and it serves as yet another reminder of how high specs aren’t necessarily the number one priority in emerging markets.
In other words, if operators really do want to push Firefox OS and set up the incentives to match (even contract Movistar customers in Spain are being offered zero-interest financing for the ZTE Open), then yes, the operating system will succeed, depending on the market we’re talking about.