Firefox OS is important — even if it fails

Mozilla erased any doubts that it is targeting the low end of the smartphone market as Spain’s Telefonica this week became the first carrier to sell handsets running Firefox OS, an open-source platform based entirely on HTML5 rather than native code. Telefonica launched the ZTE Open, which sells for roughly $90 and includes about $40 in prepaid service.
That price point instantly makes the Open competitive with handsets like Nokia’s Asha series, which are fairly sophisticated feature phones that have helped buoy the Finnish handset vendor as it struggles to sell its Lumia devices. And it’s also in the range of low-end gadgets running Android, Windows Phone and the aging BlackBerry OS – a platform that continues to do well among young consumers in some European markets. That’s a segment that is positioned to take off over the next few years as feature phone sales wane and as smartphone penetration in emerging markets continues to take off.
More than just an attractive price
The last few years have not been kind to any mobile operating system not named iOS or Android. Microsoft and BlackBerry continue to struggle to build audiences for their newer operating systems, and Palm’s webOS – which garnered some rave reviews – was an unmitigated bomb. Meanwhile, manufacturers and carriers continue to push for a third major operating system to challenge the two dominant platforms that claim a combined 90 percent of the worldwide smartphone market.
And the industry’s itch to find that third major OS has helped Mozilla assemble an impressive list of backers for Firefox OS. In addition to Telefonica – which is the fifth-largest mobile network operator in the world – Mozilla’s industry partners include Deutsche Telekom, LG, Huawei, KDDI, Qualcomm and Sprint; content partners include Disney, EA and Facebook. Those heavyweights will help Mozilla roll out the first wave of Firefox OS devices in a half-dozen markets in Europe and Latin America in the coming months.
The canary in the HTML5 coal mine
Unlike iOS, Android and other platforms that support native apps, Firefox OS is remarkably easy to develop apps for. There is no developer kit or fees to join a developer program, as The Register noted this week, and apps can be written using free, familiar programming languages. So I expect the brand-new platform to get plenty of attention from developers, particularly those whose wares may be overshadowed in the enormous libraries of the App Store and Google Play.
Those developers will face a challenge, though, in building HTML5-based apps that deliver a quality user experience, as TechCrunch points out.  That probably won’t be a problem for developers looking to build lightweight apps for things like messaging, news feeds or no-frills social networking. But some developers of more sophisticated, immersive apps are sure to have difficulty creating versions of their titles exclusively in HTML5, and they may have to build dedicated versions specifically for Firefox OS. And as I wrote a few weeks ago, Firefox OS is the first of several new operating systems based entirely on HTML5 that will come to market this year. So you can be sure developers will be watching closely.
I think Firefox OS is being overhyped in some quarters: HTML5’s shortcomings are likely to prevent it from emerging as a third major OS alongside iOS and Android, and I seriously doubt it will dazzle many feature phone users. But it does have a good chance to carve out a respectable fraction of the worldwide smartphone market. Even if it fails, though, it will have a substantial impact on the evolving world of mobile operating systems.