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Mobile operators look to Firefox to beat back Google, Apple

18 carriers announce plans to adopt Firefox OS

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MWC 2013 Jumping into bed with Apple was a mistake for the mobile operators. Firefox is their second attempt at a solution.

Apple was a mistake because operators gave away all their apps revenue to Cupertino, and that cash would have come in handy as voice and SMS cashflow declined. Instead, Apple was allowed to break all the rules – side loading, its own ecosystem, a share of revenues and many more.

Operators have now seen the error of their ways. The first attempt to redress the problem they created was Android, an “open” and anti-Apple operating system.

But operators still missed the fact that a single app store in the form of Google Play didn’t help them either.

Which brings us to today at the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona, where América Móvil, China Unicom, Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Hutchison Three Group, KDDI, KT, MegaFon, Qtel, SingTel, Smart, Sprint, Telecom Italia Group, Telefónica, Telenor, TMN and VimpelCom are crowding behind Firefox with its promise of an open market.

As is becoming the norm at Mobile World Congress, the attacks on Apple are long, and stringent and completely leave out the words “Apple” and “iPhone”, but we all know what they mean. Google has been added as a new name to those keen in spreading bile. Cesar Alierta of Telefonica/O2 described the mobile phone market as “moving backward, duopolies are no good for anyone”.

It wasn’t so long ago that O2 was crowing about what a coup it was to have the iPhone exclusive and how many new customers that had brought them.

Of course one of the things that made iPhone a success was that it was focused in its vision and not designed by consent. Firefox isn’t the first attempt at a co-operative operating system – Symbian was founded by Psion, Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola when the last three were the top handset manufacturers in the world. The history of operator-supported operating systems is even worse with Limo (now Tizen), OMTP with SavaJe and many other attempts being sidebars in phone history. Whenever operators specify things it’s always with a view to margin rather than what a customer wants and so there is no wonder that nothing has happened with Push to Talk, Mobile TV, Orange signature and T-Mobile MyFaves.

It’s hard to believe that Firefox won’t suffer a similar fate. The manufacturers who will be shipping Firefox handsets are ZTE, Alcatel (TCL), and LG with Huawei to follow. Not exactly big names. They don’t even have try-any-thing-once Samsung in the list (and Samsung is even trying Tizen). All the suitors are no doubt lured by the thought that they can cash in on the operator’s desire to push the new OS rather than the consumer’s wish to buy it.

Remember none of this is about how good or bad an operating system is, it’s all about who controls the revenue and power over the customer.

Mozilla wheeled out the big guns, in addition to the CEOs of T-Mobile, Telefonica and Telecom Italia the CEO of Qualcomm, Dr Paul Jacobs explained how they had worked with Mozilla to provide tight integration for the software systems to the Snapdragon chipset so that it could pioneer the open web effort. So perhaps open at one end but not the other. Still an HTML5 browser-based OS is going to need some horsepower against apps in compiled C.

Playing to the operators’ dislike of iTunes and Google Play, the ecosystem is based around existing HTML5 devlopers. “There is no new ecosystem. If you are building for the web, you are building a Firefox OS app. The rise of HTML 5 is inevitable.” crowed an evanglising marketing suit. Conceding that they have added features like access to camera, location, and accelerometer.

There is an apps store, Firefox Marketplace, with discovery, ratings and reviews . It won't be the only marketplace: some will be run by operators, some might be vertical. Developers can distribute direct to users. The payments model is open, developers can connect to the network operators payment model.

We’ll get Firefox phones in the UK through Telefonica, although initial target markets are Latin America – that is to say places where Apple doesn’t have too much of a hold. US operator deals are still subject to negotiation. in Australia Telstra has put up a hand.

With the past history of failures in anything co-operative, pretty much everything the operators have tried to do in specifying phone software and up against the power of the world’s richest company, Google and Microsoft it’s hard to see how Firefox can be anything other than the WebOS of tomorrow.

At least you don’t have to think in Russian. ®

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