Mozilla Moves to Mobile

By Stephanie Blanchard, Digital Editor — April 15, 2013

Back when Microsoft’s Internet Explorer dominated the desktop, Mozilla, an offshoot of Netscape, decided to challenge the monopoly with an open-source browser. After all, the non-profit organization’s core values revolve around one concept — the Web is a common good for society, not to be controlled by one or two companies.


After several Beta versions, Firefox was introduced in 2004. The browser attracted 100 million global users within its first year. Today, Firefox products (including Firefox for Android) account for almost half a billion users around the world.

With the new mobile OS, which debuted at this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC), Mozilla’s calling is once again to “free the internet, to create a common set of standards across all devices,” and to “unlock mobile” by giving users a viable option.

“We are fundamentally in the same place we were over a decade ago where it’s being unnaturally controlled by a few parties,” said Gary Kovacs, CEO, Mozilla, at MWC. Indeed, Apple and Android account for the bulk of smartphones, with Windows and BlackBerry fighting for third, or what many industry analysts consider crumbs.

The Approach
When Mozilla unveiled its ambitious mobile plans back in mid-2012, Telefonica, Qualcomm and Deutsche Telekom signed on as early adopters. Today, the organization has more than two dozen content and service partners, with Alcatel, LG and ZTE committed to manufacture the devices. (Huawei is expected to follow later this year.)

Not surprisingly, Mozilla takes a web-centric approach when it comes to mobile. HTML5 apps exist as a “first class citizen” on the homescreen. Similar to Android, Firefox OS is based on Linux. It runs the Gecko engine for its user interface, with more than 40% of its code written by volunteers.

Although Mozilla expects to continue to attract followers, especially as two billion new users come online within the next five years, the organization says it is not driven by profits, at all. Instead, it wants to be a much-needed catalyst in the mobile space, providing enabling technologies. John Jackson, Research Vice President, Mobile & Connected Platforms., IDC, concurs.

Mozilla is a .org, so it's not a disruptor in the commercial sense,” he said to Mobile Enterprise by email. “They've always been a source of innovative, community-based enabling technology. But, to be sure, if they see a degree of successful distribution in the mobile market, it will be plenty disruptive.”

Smart or Simple
In 2011, one-third of Americans owned a smartphone. That turned into one-half just a year later. According to the recent iPass Global Mobile Workforce Report, more than 62% of employees now use a personal smartphone for work, a trend that is expected to grow.

Despite Kovacs’ statement of the altruistic mission of Mozilla’s smartphone strategy, there is still a possibility that phones will eventually find their way into the enterprise via BYOD. Mozilla will likely aggressively focus on converting the remaining simple handset users to its inexpensive device.

“More is always more if you're in the business of proliferating an OS platform so I reckon they'll be happy to have you no matter what phone you're moving from,” Jackson replied. “I think the strategy, generally speaking, is to fit into modestly priced hardware, and in so doing, attract feature phone owners who still number in the hundreds of millions.”

Risky Apps
And although Sprint is in the mix, he suspects the carrier will wait and see how not only the OS develops, but how the apps and services ecosystem develops around the software. The balance of apps will be a key to success, as even for well-established manufacturers, the number of apps at launch and beyond can be a challenge, and for enterprises, data stealing apps are a risk.

Kovacs, at MWC, had said that the new OS attracted hundreds of app developers through hack-a-thons and similar events, and while that may be good news for numbers, it may not be as much for security. In theory, open source can level the playing field, but in turn, can also increase risk. Open source leader Android’s apps are a constant source of worry for the workplace.

The Mozilla app store is called “Firefox Marketplace” but it’s unclear how the organization will monitor apps, and according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Mozilla “will face challenges protecting users from the malicious mobile apps that are a growing problem around the world.”

"Developers have the freedom to innovate without asking for permission from gatekeepers," said a Mozilla spokesperson, in response to email inquiries. "Developers will no longer need to learn and develop against platform-specific native APIs. Instead they can develop on a single technology stack (HTML5/CSS/JavaScript/ new WebAPIs) and deliver across all devices running the mobile version of Firefox."

When to Worry
The Mozilla devices will initially launch in Latin America and parts of Europe. When asked when the Firefox-based smartphones would be available in the U.S., the spokesperson replied that the first Firefox OS devices for commercial use will be rolled out later this year. "Specific timing is still pending, and will be influenced by different regions and OEM partners."

To that end, Jackson does not see Mozilla’s smartphones being a factor in the U.S. right away, simply because carriers are not racing to offer the Firefox OS. He thinks Mozilla will, appropriately, tackle areas abroad first. “Google and Apple's incumbency in emerging markets generally is not what we see in developed regions, so there's more of a green field scenario to be addressed,” he explained.

Indeed, the spokesperson confirmed Mozilla's plans to target emerging markets first."We know that the biggest opportunity in mobile is in this segment and we want to offer a Firefox quality, entry - level smartphone experience in this part of the world."

"Mozilla believes in embracing user choice, and offering new technologies for all markets," the Mozilla representative concluded. "We believe no one entity can service all the unique needs these new classes of users will demand. However, the Web can meet these needs."

Going Forward
Nonetheless, as devices and OSes continue to enter the market, enterprises must be prepared for change that prosumers at every level will inevitably bring.
And in line with this rapidly-changing mobile landscape, Kovacs, who became CEO in 2010, and who kicked off the mobile project, will be stepping down later this year. A replacement has not yet been named.

In other personnel changes, Li Gong, President, Asia Operations, was named Senior Vice President, Mobile Devices, and will lead the company’s Firefox OS efforts.

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