ZTE Open: Is the Firefox Smartphone An Android Beater?

This week, Chinese smartphone maker ZTE announced the release of the first ever Firefox OS handset for the US and UK markets. The cut-price device, known as the ZTE Open, will be sold via eBay in those countries and come completely unlocked allowing SIMS from any network to work. It is already available in Spain and parts of South America on the Telefonica network.

At just $80, it’s priced well below high-end Android devices, such as HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4. But make no mistake, this latest open source offering from Firefox developer, Mozilla, is designed to bring down the mighty Google and it’s ubiquitous operating system.

However, the ZTE One is hardly likely to do that. With a 3.5-inch HFGA screen, 256MB of RAM, a 3.2MP rear-facing camera only and a 1GHz single-core Qualcomm processor, it seems like a phone from yesteryear, and perhaps that explains the cut-price price tag. But that’s not the point. As Mozilla’s head of operations in Asia, Li Gong, explains, this phone is for “first time smartphone users.”

Mozilla Levels The Playing Field

first firefox phone
Mozilla gets into the phone market.

“We see the mobile world degenerating into the old desktop world, where the whole platform is owned by a small number of companies that have their own technologies and try to lock users into their own ecosystems,” Gong said. [Venturebeat.com]

“We want to level that playing field and re-create a mobile Internet that is free and open so that the user has choice.” Selling the phone via eBay, requiring minimal marketing and logistics for ZTE, is one way to get the handsets out to as many people as possible. Most importantly, it will give developers a chance to have a go at the new operating system at little cost.

And Mozilla has its work cut out. Currently, both the Android and iPhone ecosystems have close to a million apps each, with those from Blackberry and Microsoft numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Beating Google At Their Own Game

As the new kid on the block, the Firefox Marketplace has already attracted apps from Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Pulse, SoundcCloud and several other high profile services, but it still has a long way to go.

However, one thing working in its favour is that Firefox OS is created entirely in HTML5 – the web browser language that’s already an internet standard.

This means, those working on web-based apps will be able to seamlessly translate their offering to a smartphone experience, no doubt encouraging a plethora of new features for Firefox OS users. That’s the strategy that helped the open source Android establish Google’s OS as standard on the majority of smartphones.

What could give Firefox OS an edge is that it is, in many ways, less of an operating system and more of a browser that works on a traditional feature phone. Built using a Linux kernel, the entire user interface is a web app capable of displaying and launching other web apps written with HTML5, JavaScript or other web application APIs.

This gives it an interoperability that few platforms can match. And, while it isn’t likely to replace the dominance of Android any time soon, at least until it appears on higher end handsets, it could position itself as the number three in the market.

Khurram Aziz is a web entrepreneur who trained as a journalist. He is a freelance writer, runs online ventures, and consults on WordPress and Magento web development.