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Firefox OS starts third-place race against Windows Phone

Spanish debut for Mozilla's freedom phone

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Mozilla has announced that smartphones running Firefox OS have arrived, with Telefonica-owned Spanish mobile phone operator Movistar promising delivery of the first low-priced phones on Tuesday.

The Firefox shop announced on Monday that Alcatel's One Touch Fire handset, along with the ZTE Open, which will be distributed by both Deutsche Telekom and Telefonica, will be available “soon”.

Telefonica, though, proceeded to jump ahead of the German-based carrier by announcing the ZTE would be commercially available from its Moviestar shops on 2 July.

The ZTE Open will be priced at €69 with €30 of pre-paid minutes.

Deutsche Telekom didn't have a release date for us at the time of writing, but it the inaugural launch will be in Poland, the German carrier said in a statement.

Telefonica hailed the release as a turning point for the industry.

"This week marks a key turning point for the industry as we launch the first commercial Firefox OS devices in Spain. This is just the beginning as we bring Firefox OS to more and more of our markets across an expanding range of smartphones," Telefonica's chief operating officer José María Álvarez Palette said in a statement.

Deutsche Telekom called Firefox smartphones an "important step" on the way to more innovation and competition between "different ecosystems".

"We rely on open platforms because we want to create freedom of choice on behalf of our customers," said DT board member for Europe and technology Claudia Nemat.

Tuesday's debut is important for a lot of people, but not the people Palette and Nemat were talking about. It's important for the carriers, Mozilla, Microsoft and Blackberry.

For Mozilla it means after talking about the natural benefits of an open mobile web, built using HTML5, it finally has something to show.

When it announced Firefox OS in 2011, then known as Boot to Gecko, Mozilla was clear: it believed it could become the third mobile platform choice of users and devs, meaning - therefore – it could become the third largest mobile OS developer by market share.

Mozilla's vice president of mobile engineering, Andreas Gal, wrote here: "We want to take a bigger step now, and find the gaps that keep web developers from being able to build apps that are - in every way - the equals of native apps built for the iPhone, Android and WP7."

For the carriers, Firefox OS is very important.

Firefox OS is not owned by one big corporation but rather a nice, if little eccentric and quaint by carrier standards, non-profit. The technology it is peddling is "open" - apps for Firefox OS are built using HTML5 and then accelerated using the phone's hardware, not the operating system and hardware.

For five years, it has been Apple's iPhone and ad giant Google's Android OS which have held the top positions in the mobile world, and carriers don't like that. Apple has run rings around the carriers because it owns the branding, the customers and devs. Google has imposed itself between the carriers and customers and devs on branding and application development, too.

Firefox OS is also important to Microsoft, whose Windows Phone is also trying to upset the "Applecart". Like Mozilla, Microsoft believes it can be the industry's alternative to Apple and Android.

Microsoft has already been bitten by open systems and APIs on the server, by Linux. It has also been tripped up by the energy and commitment of Mozilla in the browser market - Firefox undermined Internet Explorer's seemingly unassailable market share in the mid-2000s. Can Mozilla repeat that?

Can Firefox OS succeed in delivering on the theory and becoming the open alternative to Apple and Android?

Mozilla is working with the carriers - something that's a blessing and a curse. On the blessing side, carriers have the scale to sell phones but on curses, they can't stop their desire for control (and their desire to segment) from screwing up software and ecosystems - it has happened before on mobile Java and on Symbian.

If you want proof of what success looks like, look no further than Android and the iPhone. On both, telcos have been prevented from meddling on the operating systems' design, roadmap and on marketing.

Your correspondent feels, though, that the carriers are hedging on their choice of third party. Success is a chicken-and-egg scenario: you need carriers for market share, but carriers need to see market share before they lend you their backing.

And there's been plenty of supposedly open handset initiatives before, which have come to nothing - SavaJe and LiMo for example. Should Firefox OS provide another SavaJe or LiMo, the carriers will look elsewhere.

It's a sign of how the carriers are spreading their bets that last Wednesday Telefonica promised to help Microsoft sell more Windows phones.

Telefonica promised Redmond it'll work with its handset providers to improve the phones and also spend more money marketing handsets in the UK through O2 and other international markets for 12 months. It'll also offer Microsoft's Office 365, SharePoint, Skydrive and Xbox online through the phones.

The idea, according to last week's announcement, is to deliver an "alternative to the current duopoly of Android and iOS" - which is funny, 'cos that's just what Andreas Gal says Mozilla is doing. ®

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