Mozilla hopes to reduce smartphone prices radically

New York TimesMarch 2, 2014 

— Can a cellphone maker produce a smartphone for just $25?

That is the hope of Mozilla, the nonprofit company that created and maintains the Firefox browser.

During the Mobile World Congress conference here, Mozilla showcased a series of new phones that run on its Firefox mobile operating system, including one prototype that could retail for less than a DVD box set.

The device is targeted at emerging markets like Indonesia and is expected to hit stores by the end of the year.

It represents Firefox’s latest efforts to offer handset makers an alternative to Google’s Android operating system, which is used in almost 80 percent of the world’s smartphones, according to the research firm Gartner.

Other software competitors, including the open-source Tizen Association – which has backing from the likes of Intel and Samsung – and its rival Ubuntu are also trying to muscle in on territory now dominated by Android and Apple’s iOS.

Uphill battle

These upstart software rivals, which still represent a fraction of the overall market, are targeting both existing smartphones and new wearable devices like smartwatches to offer manufacturers an alternative to the main two software providers. That is particularly true in emerging markets where low-cost phones are often not designed to run the most high-powered versions of Android.

“You’ve got billions of people coming online and many can’t use the phones in the market,” said Johnathan Nightingale, the vice president for Firefox at Mozilla. “We have the luxury to say that this is something that the world needs, and we don’t need to make money from it.”

Despite the new operating system’s lofty goals, analysts say it will most likely face an uphill battle to break the dominance of Android and iOS, which together hold almost 95 percent of the global smartphone market. The U.S. companies have large libraries of apps to attract consumers, and even Microsoft with its deep pockets and Windows Phone software have failed to make a significant dent in the market.

Still, the upstarts say that focusing on emerging markets, as well as other uses for their software, as in wearable devices, could help them win a greater share.

Cars and TVs

Last week, Samsung, the South Korean tech giant, released its latest smartwatch, the Gear Fit, which runs on a bare-bones operating system for which Samsung does not yet have a name. The company announced two other smartwatches this week that run on Tizen, not Android. And after protracted delays, Samsung is expected to introduce a smartphone using the open-source software by the end of the year.

Other companies, including Intel, also want to help design the software for applications in cars and televisions, where no operating system currently dominates the market.

“I see Tizen on consumer electronics, first and foremost,” said Imad N. Sousou, general manager of Intel’s open-source technology center. “Tizen was conceived to work on many different types of devices.”

Firefox also is aiming its software at other sectors like television. And while it does not have the dedicated smartphone applications available on online stores like Google Play, the nonprofit says its software can run existing applications that have been designed for the Internet.

Currently, Firefox subsidizes its operating system through revenue generated from its web browser, and offers its software to handset makers like Huawei of China that are primarily focused on emerging markets. The company says the average handset using its software costs $50-$75.

“We are trying to reach as much of the world as we can,” said Nightingale of Firefox. “A $25 smartphone can be transformative in the reach that it can have.”

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