Matchstick, the Firefox OS-based Chromecast competitor, launches on Kickstarter for $18

Remember that Firefox OS-based streaming stick we first told you about in June? It debuted on Kickstarter on Tuesday under the product name Matchstick, and it’s priced to pick a fight: The first 500 backers will get the device for merely $12, after which it will be available for $18.

But [company]Matchstick[/company] doesn’t want to just be cheaper than [company]Google[/company]’s Chromecast streaming stick, it also promises to be more open — which includes the publication of the hardware schematics, available for anyone to download. “Matchstick is not only open source software, but open source hardware,” said Matchstick CEO Jack Chang during an interview Monday.

Like Chromecast, but more open

Matchstick does have a lot in common with Chromecast: The streaming adapter gets plugged into a TV’s HDMI port, is powered via USB, and is based on casting content from native and web apps. Just like with Chromecast, casting — or flinging, as the Matchstick folks prefer to call it — merely hands a URL to the device, meaning that the content gets played from the cloud so you can turn off your phone once you started to cast content.

But the similarities don’t stop there: First-generation Chromecast apps will run on the device without any changes, according to the company’s Kickstarter page, while developers of newer apps will be able to make their apps Matchstick-compatible with some very minor changes. Matchstick’s full SDK was published Tuesday as well.

An HDMI dongle, powered by USB -- Matchstick looks a lot like Chromecast.

A HDMI dongle, powered by USB — Matchstick looks a lot like Chromecast.

So why would someone buy a device that’s just like Chromecast, except for the cheaper price tag? Matchstick’s Chang thinks that he will be able to lure in developers that won’t feel welcome on Chromecast. “An open platform will invite more developers to build interesting apps,” he told me.

Chang didn’t go into details, but one area that’s a bit of a blind spot for Chromecast is x-rated content. Sure, Chromecast users can cast all the porn they want by using a mobile browser, but adult content publishers aren’t able to add casting capabilities to their apps, even though some, including, clearly want to.

Matchstick’s hardware: powerful, for the price

The other difference between Matchstick and Chromecast is under the hood: Google’s Chromecast team spent a lot of time optimizing its device’s hardware to get the maximum bang for their bucks, and decided to go with 512 MB SDRAM and 2 GB of flash memory. Fast forward 18 months, and components have become a whole lot cheaper, allowing Matchstick to include 1 GB of RAM and 4 GB of flash memory, as well as a Dual-Core Coretex A-9 Rokchip processor that the company promises will be more powerful than Chromecast’s [company]Marvell[/company] chipset as well.

Matchstick comes with 1GB of RAM and 4GB of SDRAM.

Matchstick comes with 1GB of RAM and 4GB of flash memory.

Extra memory and processing power could help to make for smoother animations and possibly even gaming, but the extra on-board memory could also used by third-party developers who want to take Matchstick and run other apps on it that don’t fit into the casting paradigm.

Matchstick also announced a developer program Tuesday, promising to hand out 300 sticks for free to app and web developers, and inviting some of them to a developer workshop that will be held in conjunction with [company]Mozilla[/company] next month.

Matchstick is handing out 300 prototype units to developers over the coming weeks. Check out the video of a prototype in action that I recorded back in June:


The Mozilla effect

Speaking of Mozilla: Matchstick could be huge for the browser and OS maker, which is still waiting for a breakthrough success story for Firefox OS. Mozilla has thus far been concentrating its OS efforts on mobile phones, including a $32 handset that a partner manufactures exclusively for the Indian market. We don’t have any sales numbers for these devices just yet, but local reception seems to be mixed, and the next land grab from Google’s low-priced Android One initiative is just around the corner.

Mozilla also introduced Firefox OS for the living room at CES, with Panasonic showing off a prototype smart TV based on the operating system — but that device has yet to find its way to shelves. Matchstick could be the company’s first real shot at both establishing a living room product and introducing U.S. consumers to Firefox OS.

As such, the folks at Mozilla seem to be pretty excited about the project. “This is exactly what we built Firefox OS for,” Mozilla’s Senior Director of Product Chris Lee told me during an interview Monday. He also argued that there may be a way for Firefox OS phones to benefit from Matchstick, adding: “There is a lot of opportunity for synergy.”

Will people buy into this?

The big challenge for Matchstick now is to convince the world that there is a need for a product that looks and works a whole lot like another already established product. The aggressive price will give Matchstick a boost, and likely turn the Kickstarter into a success story. But how average consumers will look at the dongle when they get to buy it some time next year for a $25 suggested retail price is a completely different story.

And the Chromecast team isn’t resting either: To learn what’s next for Google’s streaming stick, make sure to check out our Structure Connect Conference in San Francisco in October, where we will have Chromecast VP Mario Queiroz talking about the future of Chromecast and Google Cast.

To actually compete with Chromecast, and turn Matchstick into a successful product, it is going to need two things: Netflix and other premium apps as well as that one killer app or feature that sets it apart from Chromecast. Developers may be enticed by openness, but consumers won’t care if that openness doesn’t translate to something new and exciting. Maybe it’s casual gaming, maybe it’s porn or maybe it’s a video service that doesn’t want to be on Chromecast. Whatever it is, it has to help Matchstick set itself apart — otherwise, it’s just a me-too product.