As my post last week indicated, I'm increasingly sceptical of Mozilla's role as the key defender of the open Web, largely because of its decision to embrace DRM. Even as a purveyor of fine Web browsers, things don't look so rosy. Two years ago, its global market share was fairly stable around 20%; a year ago, that slipped to around 19%; today, it's slumped to 14%. Meanwhile, Google's Chrome has overtaken Firefox as the number two browser, and holds around 21% of the market. Obviously, these figures are to be taken with a serious grain of salt, but I think the trend is real. So, given these developments, the obvious question that needs to be answered is: where exactly does Mozilla's future lie?
Of course, Mozilla will continue to do good work in the area of the open Web, and I expect to be using Firefox for many more years. But alongside these, Mozilla has been working on a very different project: its Firefox OS and associated mobile phones. This is finally beginning to take off, as a recent blog post from the organisation explains:
Firefox OS is now available on three continents with 12 smartphones offered by 13 operators in 24 countries. As the only truly open mobile operating system, Firefox OS demonstrates the versatility of the Web as a platform, free of the limits and restrictions associated with proprietary mobile operating systems.
Three new smartphones have been launched in India and Bangladesh over the last few weeks, offering not only more affordable choice but the advent of a brand new ultra low-cost category.
Firefox OS is now available in Central America through Telefónica with launches in El Salvador, Panama, Nicaragua and Guatemala, and Deutsche Telekom launched the first Firefox OS devices in the Czech Republic and Macedonia.
I think there are two quite distinct aspects here. The more obvious one is price: the Indian Firefox OS phone, the Cloud FX, is available for 1,999 Rupees - just a little over £20. That's an astonishing price. Of course, that unprecedentedly low figure also means that the hardware is very limited. Here's what one of the first US reviewers wrote:
We're not dealing with a speed demon here. The spec sheet looks like it's about seven years old: a 3.5-inch 480×320 LCD, a 1GHz single-core Cortex A5 CPU, 128MB of RAM, 256MB of storage, and a 2MP camera.
However, he did go on to say:
That's roughly equivalent to a first-gen iPhone from 2007, but today you can buy 14 Cloud FXes for the launch price ($500) of the first base-model iPhone.
This is the crucial point: Firefox OS can put iPhone-type capability in the hands of people who would never be able to afford an Apple smartphone. As the review makes plain, the Cloud FX has many limitatations, but only if seen from the perspective of the latest smartphone technology. From the rather different perspective of someone who currently has only a featurephone - or maybe no phone at all - it is little short of miraculous.
It's instructive reading the comments made by those who have purchased the Cloud FX. The overall rating is 2.5 stars out of five, with two main complaints bringing down the score: that the battery life is poor (this clearly needs fixing), and that WhatsApp is not available (an interesting priority.) On the other hand, many people accept that a phone this cheap will be limited, and are simply pleased that they can get any kind of smartphone for that price. It's also worth pointing out that these are some of the first models using Firefox OS: the first Android phones were similarly ropey, but soon improved. I expect Firefox OS systems to do the same given the intense competition in the mobile sector.
I mentioned that I thought there were two aspects to the Firefox OS. The first is that unmatched price point. The second concerns the fact that Firefox OS is "free of the limits and restrictions associated with proprietary mobile operating systems" as the post I quoted above puts it. As readers of this blog will know, there is one particular problem with proprietary software that has only come to light in the last year or so: the fact that it comes routinely with backdoors that allow the NSA to spy on its users. As I and many people have noted, free software is your best defence here - not impregnable, by any means, but certainly better than the alternatives.
This means that Firefox OS phones are also highly attractive to anyone wanting to protect their privacy better. Because they are open source, it will be possible for others to check the code for stuff that shouldn't be there (whether anyone will bother is another matter, as is the risk of hardware backdoors.) And for the truly paranoid, the extremely low price means that a group of people could buy a few dozen such phones for the cost of a single traditional smartphone, and then swap phones among themselves on a random basis in order to mix up the digital trails that mobile phones inevitable leave in their daily use.
However, that's clearly a small, rather specialised market. What really matters about Firefox OS is that it has the potential to change the lives of billions of people around the world by offering them smartphones at a price even the relatively poor can afford. If Mozilla can do that, its Firefox OS programme will have a far larger impact than anything that Firefox the browser could achieve.