MWC: Balance -- why Apple should welcome the Firefox OS

February 25, 2013 11:35 AM EST

Mobile World Congress: The annual mobile industry trade fair this year bears witness to a host of switched-on initiatives proving carriers are looking to wrest back control of what's happening on their networks from device makers like Apple [AAPL] and OS developers such as Google [GOOG]. Perhaps the biggest slap for both firms is the public debut of a new  mobile operating system from Firefox -- and Apple fans should applaud this new contender.

[ABOVE: Firefox introduces a more open mobile OS. This seemed an appropriate theme tune.]

Open, choice, balance

There's buzz words doing the rounds at the show that seem to underline what it is incumbents in the space are looking for, "open", "choice" and "balance". To the front of any of these words you could add another, "real": Real open; real choice; real balance.

You don't have to be partisan about your choice of mobile platform to understand that a global industry defined by just two operating system vendors isn't necessarily the best possible scenario for industry diversity, choice, balance or openness.

  • Apple's model is a controlled model, and while I personally prefer it I feel its current market share reflects that it isn't the choice for everyone.
  • Google spouts the word choice, but in a field of two horses it doesn't truly deliver any choice other than not being Apple. Google also touts itself as "open", but many serious industry observers have disagreed.
  • BlackBerry and Microsoft offer alternative systems, but neither pretend to be open, and neither have achieved the kind of industry traction the industry requires to avoid it becoming defined as nothing more than a two-horse race.
  • Two-horse races are not especially exciting.

Difference engine

Firefox has a lot going for it as it attempts to take a stab at the mobile biz. For a start, it's raison-d'etre is very different from that of the other two firms -- it's not a device vendor like Apple, and it isn't determined to turn its users into profit centers, like Google.

The debut of a more open mobile OS will no doubt split the hardcore open source techies away from any loyalty they may hold to Android. That's a big deal, as these people are also likely to begin to develop for the new OS, which hopefully will be better secured than Google's managed with its anti-Apple OS so far. Not only this, but as the new OS is built around HTML5, existing applications written in that standard will "jut work", as Apple like to say.

[ABOVE: Firefox OS start page.]

Needs work

The Firefox OS aims particularly at low-end devices, at least at the moment. The first devices will come from Alcatel, LG, ZTE and Huawei and be carried by 18 operators. They will appear first in Brazil, Colombia, Hungary, Mexico, Montenegro, Poland, Serbia, Spain and Venezuela. You won't get one of these devices in the US until next year, by which time kinks and deficiencies in the OS should be worked out.

The latter's good news as reports from the show suggest initial devices are a little "slow and buggy" according to Ovum.

However, the support the OS has won underscores an unusual level of support as the mobile industry attempts to create a little diversity in the OS landscape -- and reach new deals enabling them to profit from the activity taking place on their networks.

"Firefox OS has achieved something that no device software platform has previously managed – translating an industry talking shop into a huge commitment from both carriers and hardware vendors at its commercial launch. Neither Android nor Symbian – the closest benchmarks in terms of broad industry sponsorship that we’ve previously seen – have rallied the level of support that Firefox OS has achieved so early in its development," said Tony Cripps,  principal device analyst at Ovum in a press statement provided to me.

Pros and cons

According to Net Applications, Firefox was the second-most-used browser in January, with a 19.9% share globally. This means it has a strong connection with people who use the Web already.

The company clearly hopes these people will consider its OS as an alternative to others available on the market.

It seems inevitable the new OS will be widely adopted by device makers who've had little profitable success with Android at this point.

"With Samsung commanding over 42.5 percent of the Android market globally, and the next vendor at just 6 percent share, the Android brand is being overshadowed by Samsung's brand with the Galaxy name nearly a synonym for Android phones in consumers' mind share," said Anshul Gupta, principal research analyst at Gartner. 

Changing the game

Android now appears personified as the OS inside Samsung devices, and that firm's scooping up the industry as a result, polling 22.7 percent of the market, according to Gartner.

Firefox mobiles then seem likely to impact Samsung's market share, at least at the low end. I believe the OS is far less likely to impact Apple's share. That's because the iPhone market is a high-end market. It is also because iOS users generally choose to purchase an iPhone, and tend to remain loyal to it once they do.

Gartner recently declared Apple to hold 9.2 percent of the global mobile phone market. This confirms the company's one-size-fits-all model isn't necessarily appropriate to every single one of the world's mobile phone users, but that given a choice a percentage of the global population will pick an iPhone.

Any fan of true operating system choice and diversity -- particularly those who also prefer truly open platforms -- should welcome Firefox' arrival within the market. It should help innovate mobile development at the low end, and provides an alternative to Android, giving users -- and carriers -- real choices in what they want to use if they don’t want to use an Apple.

UPDATE: That the battle lines are already being drawn is clear in Samsung's statement today that it will not adopt the Firefox OS on its handsets...

Dominance sucks

Firefox will obviously give Android more competition. Device makers seeking ways to diversify their products may choose it; consumers seeking low-end devices with a little intelligence may pick one up. The effect should be to normalize Android's current dominance in operating systems and make for a more diverse and competitive market.

This leaves Apple in position to continue to focus on serving the needs of the high-end customers who currently seem to comprise of around 10 percent of users.

It seems likely Android's market share that will be most impacted by Firefox. If this happens it is open to question just how Google might react to any such impact: The Mozilla Foundation is currently partially funded by Google, which pays around $300 million per year for setting Google as the default search engine inside Firefox.

It would be telling if Google decided to act against consumer choice by ending such a relationship in retaliation for the Mozilla Foundations' Firefox OS move.

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