Firefox OS puts a good $50 smartphone within reach

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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TOPICS: Smartphones
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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.

Topic: Smartphones

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73 comments
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  • Start manning the pumps

    Nokia is losing the low end and is still nowhere in the high end. They are up against entrenched leaders (iOS and Android) in the high end and apparently have nothing to compete with Android, and soon Ubuntu and Firefox in the low end.

    Nokia gambled on the wrong horse. As I see it, MS/Windows is in a sense a damaged brand, which people are not clamoring for in mobile. You could call it karma, and MS is doing nothing to fix it with Ballmer at the helm; witness the Windows 8 debacle and the apparent on-going finger pointing and strong arming of competitors and partners.

    The world does not need MS to succeed in mobile, and a decline in their desktop dominance would also be helpful.

    I feel for Nokia, but in this fast changing world, falling asleep at the switch for even a few moments can prove fatal.
    D.T.Long
    • you have too much

      Bitterness inside of you. Eat a cake, it'll be better.
      Throw All The Things
      • He can't eat the cake.

        He's lactose intolerant.

        That's why he's always so bitter.
        ForeverCookie
        • Firefox OS will dance on Nokia's grave.

          Nokia is dead. Nokia has an appalling strategy.

          Guided by the two biggest fools in the business. The person who killed Nokia is CEO Stephen Elop, but he is just a proxy for the next biggest fool, Microsoft's Steve Ballmer.

          Ballmer comes from the Microsoft old-school, and is utterly unsuited to manage today's technology. Ballmer hates open-source software. He once described Linux as "a cancer".

          Now look what's happening. Open-source software, be it Android, Firefox OS or Webkit, is eating Microsoft's lunch. Despite the collapse of Windows 8 and Windows Phone, Ballmer is set in his old ways and can't change his attitude.

          This isn't rocket science. A simple and effective operating system like Firefox OS will be immensely popular in developing nations, and possibly in developed nations too, where people want value for money and/or long battery life.

          After Firefox OS becomes established in phones, there's no doubt it will then be applied to larger form factors, like tablets and laptops.
          Vbitrate
          • Must be the year of Linux again.

            It's the year of Linux every year, after all.
            ForeverCookie
          • Have you been living in a cave?

            Even if you add up the sales of all forms of Windows, desktop + tablet + phone, it's still considerably less than sales of Android now.

            You do know Android has a Linux kernel, right?
            URNumber6
          • I like Android, I really do.

            But it isn't a "true" Linux operating.

            A true Linux OS would be something like Ubuntu, or DSL.

            There are a couple of articles about it somewhere around the internet, so you can search it up yourself.
            ForeverCookie
          • Oh android is Linux now?

            I guess we can stop telling people how secure Linux is then right? Or is it only Linux when you want to inflate sales numbers?
            mrefuman
          • Re: Must be the year of Linux again.

            Considering Linux is now outshipping Windows about 2:1, the "year of Linux" happened a long time ago.
            ldo17
          • Yes. Yes it is, afterall.

            It has been the year of Linux for quite some time now. Success is not merely measured by units sold or profit margins alone. Survivability and sustainability is the true, ultimate measure of success. The dinosaurs were the most successful species on the planet for quite a while. I'm sure no one at ZDnet would have given the mammals much credit for being a successful up and coming species if it had been around to put out useless predictions at the time.
            techadmin.cc@...
          • the dinosaurs are not dead

            the birds are still flying after all.
            ForeverSPb
    • Didn't you claim at once that you are platform agnostic

      and never hated Microsoft? Ok, I got it you were just pretending that time, but you just showed your real jealousy and hatred now. So as per your words, you are a paid shill to spew hatred towards Microsoft. Moving on.
      Ram U
      • Re: and never hated Microsoft?

        Strange how a legitimate comment about the state of the mobile industry is automatically (mis)construed by some as "hating" the company that happens to be on the losing end.
        ldo17
        • Hating, it is...

          D.T.Long stated "The world does not need MS to succeed in mobile, and a decline in their desktop dominance would also be helpful." This sure sounds like anti-ms to me. If he said something like "The more competition and choices, the better for the consumer", that would sound neutral to me, but he basically hopes ms fails, but feels sorry for Nokia.
          Papa_papa
      • Interesting that only after MS started it'sTE program

        hiring shills to bad mouth competing products and began bribing bloggers to write favorable reviews about MS products that no one can say anything negative about MS and not be accused of being a shill for the other side.

        "What other side?" is the question here. Who has the money to pay people to point out MS problems/failures and why would they bother when people will gladly do so for free?
        techadmin.cc@...
        • "What other side?"

          I'm sorry, since when do you have to get paid to root for "the other side"? Someone better tell all those sports fans to check the mailbox for their check.
          mrefuman
      • How about virus agnostic?

        Ever read a post here by a Linux user complaining about getting infected?

        There are many valid reasons for hating Microsoft and their abuse of humanity.
        Joe.Smetona
        • Isn't this article about a Phone OS?

          I don't recall ever reading about an infected windows phone. Android on the other hand...
          mrefuman
        • How about virus agnostic?

          Start educate, first read about How about Linux/Chapro.A
          :::Apache is being used to carry out these attacks, injecting malicious content into web pages served by an infected Linux server, without the knowledge of the website owner. Although the malware can serve practically any type of content, in this specific case it installs a variant of Win32/Zbot, malware designed to steal information from online banking customers:::::
          http://www.linuxtoday.com/upload/apache-malware-targeting-online-banking-121219075505.html

          In short linux servers are infected by Linux viruses which infect other systems and steal data. Following your words: There are many valid reasons for hating Linux and their abuse of humanity.
          Mr.SV
    • I'm not sure I would put Ubuntu

      in the low end category because the devices required to run Ubuntu Touch and the potential app ecosystem that will be available upon public launch. Don't for get that Canonical is targeting enterprise first and consumers second with Ubuntu Touch.

      I do agree that Nokia bet on the wrong pony in this race. If Nokia can not score a big hit very soon they may as well just let Microsoft absorb them into the abyss.
      DancesWithTrolls