Why Firefox -- yes, Firefox -- will become the mobile OS to beat

Credit: Wojciech Szcz?sny via Flickr, cropped

In the run up to this year's Mobile World Congress, one of the most interesting items was an announcement of more phones running the Firefox OS operating system. The goal of the Mozilla Foundation with Firefox OS is to make dirt-cheap smartphones for the developing world, and they have targeted prices of $20 and $25 for the smartphones -- which are really more like feature phones.

To the skeptics, Firefox OS doesn't stand much of a chance against the juggernaut that is Android. After all, Android is already free and open source. And feature phones are going the way of the Dodo bird. And the mobile platform game is all about network effects and apps, and Android has too much of a lead among developers for Firefox OS to get a foothold.

But hold on. There are a few things this narrative doesn't take into account.

First, Firefox OS actually solves a few serious technical problems that Google is not interested in with Android. It is optimized for cheap, low-power chips, and to fit on a very small amount of memory. These are not trivial issues, especially when Google's roadmap for Android is mostly about competing with iOS at the high end. This means that if you are, say, China's ZTE, and you are looking for an OS for dirt-cheap phones, you can't just plug Android in. Sure, you could modify it because it's open source, but that's not your core competency and it's a big investment. So there is actually a real incentive for OEMs to make Firefox phones.

Second: Yes, the developing world is growing and, yes, smartphone adoption is always rocketing up and, yes, eventually feature phones will be a thing of the past. But this won't happen tomorrow.

While there are now for the first time over a billion smartphones in use around the world -- a staggering number -- Ericsson estimates that there's an astonishing 4.5 billion people who own mobile phones. For those who paid attention in math class, that's 4.5 times as many.

That's more than 3 billion people who don't have smartphones and might want to use something else. Most of those people cannot afford an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy, to say the least. But they might be able to afford a $20 phone that gives them the internet and apps, even if hipsters will sneer at it.

In essence, Firefox OS is trying to pull off the classic disruptive innovation model of attacking an underserved segment of the market with a cheaper, lower-featured product, and hopefully eat its way up the value chain -- ironically, this is already what open-source Android is doing to iOS.

Why it will take off

In order to make a mobile ecosystem take off, you need many types of stakeholders to come together : consumers, OEMs, carriers, and developers.

Consumer demand is clearly there, at least potentially. OEMs have a clear incentive to get behind something like Firefox OS.

Carriers too, because in developing markets, pre-paid rcontracts are the norm: 78% in the Middle East, 80% in Latin America, 82% in Asia Pacific, 87% in the former Soviet Union and a striking 96% in Africa (according to A.T. Kearney). As those markets mature, those numbers will change, but developing world consumers are clearly used to pre-paid phones, and implementing post-paid will be a challenge in many markets because post-paid requires a well-oiled banking and legal system. Under a post-paid model, carriers have an incentive to sell more expensive phones as a way to attract lucrative contracts, but under a pre-paid models, the cheaper the better. The more expensive the smartphone is, the bigger the barrier is to the consumer.

What about developers? This might be the toughest nut to crack. Any company in mobile is already hard at work trying to keep up with iOS and Android, with scant time to devote to the runners-up. By definition, developing-world consumers have less money than rich-world consumers, and so they're going to be less attractive. But 3 billion people is still a big market, even if they are poor.

What's more, not all developers live in San Francisco or other rich-world tech hubs. Who will make apps for developing world customers? Developing world programmers, probably. When Android started eclipsing iOS's market share, Apple kept pointing out that iOS users spent a lot more money than Android users and therefore it still made sense to develop for iOS first -- until Android got too big to ignore.

None of this is a foregone conclusion, of course. Firefox OS is still in its early days, and this roadmap, like all plans, could be a list of things that won't happen. But the entire mobile ecosystem is still in its early days. Firefox OS is most often an afterthought. It shouldn't be.

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