Firefox OS puts a good $50 smartphone within reach

Summary:I bought a 'developer preview' Firefox OS phone to try. It's a pleasant little smartphone with the promise of making good, cheap smartphones a possibility.

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The GeeksPhone "Keon" Firefox OS phone sitting on the box it came in, sitting on the desk I sit at. Image: Matt Baxter-Reynolds

Why did I buy a Firefox OS phone? Well, I wanted to see what it was like. It is sort of my job, and I can normally justify buying things to try based on the fact I can blog about them.

I ordered mine about five weeks ago and it arrived yesterday. In the meantime, I'd spoken to a couple of people on Twitter who had said that I should expect a disappointing, appalling mess of a thing. When the UPS notification came in a few days prior to arrival, I'd totally gone off the idea of trying it.

However, I did try it, and you know what? It's pretty good.

Gecko

The idea of the Firefox OS is that it's enough of an operating system to boot a web browser, and basically nothing else. It's designed to provide the experience of having apps, but there's no native code on this thing. HTML apps can be packaged and installed/cached locally.

Firefox OS used to be called "Boot to Gecko" — Gecko being the name of the Firefox rendering engine. Firefox OS has three components: Gonk, which is enough bits of Linux to make a portable computer; Gecko, a web browser; and Gaia, the user interface layer that makes it look like a phone.

And it really is all HTML. Even the status bar at the top that shows the time, etc, is just HTML.

As the whole world is structured "mobile first" now, Firefox OS has become a de facto smartphone OS. A Spanish startup called GeeksPhone has produced two "developer preview" phones, and it was one of these that I bought.

It's not really worth reviewing the hardware, as none of the intended customers for these things will ever buy a "developer preview" phone. What I do know is that the 1GHz Snapdragon processor and the OS worked together to create a good experience.

Yes, it's no Galaxy S4 or iPhone 5, but everything is clearly laid out, responsive, and sensible. The OS is much more fully-featured than I was expecting — the mail client supports Exchange ActiveSync; I can create a Wi-Fi hotspot off of my cellular connection; and so on.

I liked it.

Why

I spent €91 (about $120) on a device called "Keon" from GeeksPhone. This is a very low-end device. GeeksPhone also sell a device called "Peek" for €149 (about $195) that has a bit more horsepower, larger screen, etc.

However, as mentioned, the hardware I used doesn't really matter. The value in Firefox OS is as an operating system for powering very low-cost phones in emerging markets. In emerging markets, if you can make a phone for about $50, you've got something very special.

Being able to put high-end technology in people's hands for a very low-end cost — that's a winning result all round.

At this point, if you did manage to jam Firefox OS into a $50 phone, I think it'll work. On the low-end hardware from GeeksPhone, the OS behaves as it's been designed to behave, as opposed to being an OS designed to target high-end hardware that just happens to hold it together when made to run on less-good kit.

You may not be in the market for a $50 smartphone, but sociologically, this is a really interesting space. Technology is life-changing wherever you put it, and being able to put high-end technology in people's hands for a very low-end cost — that's a winning result all round.

On the subject of low-end phones, a couple of weeks ago, I bought a Nokia Asha phone on the back of some chatter about how Nokia was doing rather well selling these things in the same emerging markets that the Firefox phone might be good for. I wanted to get a sense as to what people were getting for their money.

I bought an Nokia Asha 300 to try. Cost to me was about £60, or about $96. This is double the target that we're after here of a $50 smartphone, but about the same as the Firefox OS-based Keon.

The problem with the Asha was that it was rubbish. And not just "I've used an expensive smartphone every day for four years and can buy whatever I like" rubbish; it was just awful. It was slow, unintuitive, cheap, and utterly underwhelming and disappointing. It was like going back in time to a point before we worked out how to make phones actually good. I sent it back almost immediately.

And that's quite an interesting position for Nokia to be in; not that we've even got onto Android yet, but we will in a minute. My ZDNet colleague Ben Woods discussed recently how  Nokia's worst nightmare is waning Asha sales . Asha is "papering over the cracks" at Nokia, whilst the Lumia ramps up to speed.

The problem is, brand value aside, the Firefox phone is now easily technically much better than the Asha on similar hardware. Which means Asha now faces competition from Android and Firefox OS.

Android

Anyone playing at this level, though, has to deal with the relentless march of Android. Most Android phones that we see in the US and UK markets are "proper" Android phones that include service licenses from Google to tie them into the Google ecosystem, particularly with regards to Play. They are not usually sold for $50, SIM-free.

Now the factories and their clients have two options — Android and Firefox. And they might also have Ubuntu, too.

However, go ahead and Google "no brand Android phones", and see what you can find. Click through to Alibaba.com, and you can buy a 4-inch Android phone with an ex-factory price of $40.

An ex-factory price gets you to a point where a $50 street price is easy enough.

That's your market pressure right there, because as we know, those factories based in China are pretty good at making lots and lots of cheap-yet-effective, no-brand hardware. And Android is now sufficiently mature to let them do that without any controversy and stress.

Of course, now they can also load Firefox OS onto this cheap hardware. That's just as open source and as free from complications as Android. (Perhaps more so — it depends how any patent issues shake out.) So now the factories and their clients have two options — Android and Firefox. And they might also have Ubuntu, too .

What is clear is that Asha's interest in the market deserves to wane. Your brand can only take you so far, and a choice of OSs on $50 "no brand" smartphones (which are also actually good), suggests that part of the market is maturing and developing.

What do you think? Post a comment or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Smartphones

About

Matt Baxter-Reynolds is a mobile software development consultant and technology sociologist based in the UK. His latest book -- "Death of the PC" -- is available on Amazon now.

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