Two years ago Mozilla, in its non-profit, low-profile way, unveiled plans to move into the mobile market. No, it wasn’t going to compete with the high-end offerings of Google's Android or, God forbid, Apple.
Rather, it would make its mark by focusing on developing markets and by partnering with global carriers that were looking to offer a third option.
And so in 2012 Mobile OS from Mozilla launched. A few short months after that, Chinese manufacturer ZTE announced it would collaborate with Mozilla to build a device based on the open-source software. Said ZTE Director of Corporate Branding & Communications David Dai Shu at the time: “It’s all part of our wider plans to create a better balance of products using various operating systems. We won’t just rely on Android or Windows.”
On Sunday before the start of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Mozilla kicked things up a notch with the announcement that it has a chip deal with Spreadtrum to create reference designs for a $25 cellphone. It was a good opportunity for the non-profit to reacquaint the world with its mobile OS and its decided smartphone-like functionality.
In short, Mozilla Mobile is poised for further momentum in the global market and while it surely doesn’t threaten Apple’s market share or even Google’s, it does open new doors not just to device manufacturers, but to companies that want to reach these markets.
As Mozilla noted at Barcelona, Firefox OS is now in 15 markets on three devices from four different carriers.
In addition, Firefox OS will be moving into several new markets this year, it said, as Telefonica plans to expand into Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Germany, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama with the device, while Deutsche Telekom adds Croatia, the Czech Republic, Macedonia and Montenegro to the mix.
Firefox Versus Android Versus Windows Phone
For many mobile watchers the story of Firefox OS begins and ends with what it means for Android and Windows Phone. And to be sure, this makes for a compelling David-versus-David-versus-Goliath narrative.
One of Windows Phone’s goals has been to target the low end of the market, especially outside of the U.S., and it is doing exactly that. Last winter Kantar Worldpanel reported that Microsoft’s mobile platform gained serious momentum in emerging markets, especially in Latin America where the majority of consumers in Latin America own a Nokia feature phone.
In January of this year, Microsoft told Neowin that Windows Phone is the number two mobile OS in 14 markets including India, Mexico, Chile, Thailand, Ukraine, Greece, Malaysia and South America.
Mozilla Mobile, though, could make a serious dent in this progress. If it wants to continue building on its recent nominal share increases, IDC said in a report last fall, Microsoft will need to ship more low-cost smartphones to high-growth emerging markets.
The time is particular ripe, IDC continued, as BlackBerry OS share is expected to continue to decline and “emboldened competition” will whittle away share in its remaining regional bastions of strength, such as Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Mozilla, though, has been focusing much of its competitive fire on Android, which executives at the foundation mercilessly call too bloated and too hungry for memory and processing power for low-end hardware to support. However, with Android’s dominant share and entrenched relationships with carriers these accusations probably aren’t keeping the folks in Mountain View up at night. (Also, Mozilla offers Firefox for Android so presumably it can’t think the platform is that bad).
So yes, Firefox OS represents competitive issues for mobile carriers and competing OS platforms.
The real competitive story, however, is the push a $25 phone will give to mobile enterprise in developing countries–and those Western companies that want to reach these people.
Pricing is everything in developing markets and not just for phones, analyst Rob Enderle of The Enderle Group tells me. “Twenty-five dollars could well be affordable to businesses there, not to mention consumers, and that–price–is the filter through which they will make their decision about getting a phone.”
But they are getting more than just a phone. Along with Firefox OS comes Firefox Marketplace and an adaptive app search that Mozilla has developed. As Mozilla explains:
The Firefox Marketplace makes it possible to create local and niche apps with relevant regional content by allowing developers to build on basic Web technologies, without gatekeepers. The top new local apps in the Firefox Marketplace include Despegar.com travel booking, Capp World Cup highlights, Captain Rogers game, Manana reading app, Napster, SurfTime and more.
Some of you might be thinking—emerging markets, who cares? I won’t bore you with the latest growth stats and projections for these countries, or for that matter, revisit the recent stock and currency market turbulence in many of the countries.
I’ll just end with a nod to global conglomerate Unilever, the world’s second-largest consumer-goods maker most beloved for, in my opinion, its Ben & Jerry ice cream brand. More than half to two-thirds of its revenue come from emerging market economies and Chief Executive Officer Paul Polman is predicting a slump lasting for years. “Growth continued to slow in emerging markets as a result of the impact of economic uncertainty and currency depreciation,” he said.
Still its sales in emerging markets increased 8.7% in the fourth quarter, from 5.9% in the third quarter of 2013. And the presumably stable developed markets? Those, Polman said, “remained weak with little sign of any overall improvement despite the more positive macroeconomic indicators in recent months.”