Mobile Communications

Martin Veitch (Global) - Firefox OS: Does the World Need Another Smartphone OS and What are the Odds on its Success?

Calling winners at the beginning of new product cycles and infant technology trends is a dangerous game. Had bookmakers taken my bets over the last 20-odd years the likelihood is that I would be standing here shirtless singing Brother Can You Spare a Dime? Not a good look; not a good look at all.

There have been some correct predictions of course.

I was a booster for Palm back in the mid-Nineties before it rocketed and it was to be many years before the company faded amid botched releases, serial changes of ownership and cockeyed management. But then I had previously also anticipated (repeatedly and indeed ad nauseam) the success of Windows for pen-computing devices and today, 20 years down the line Microsoft, is still knocking on the door when it comes to mobile.

I thought was a breakthrough the moment I saw it (but then almost every other pundit concurred) and I was a huge fan of Tesco's IT strategy from loyalty cards through supply-chain management and online orders, even before the company had assumed its current Teflon reputation for digital excellence.

But there again, on the eve of its £23bn IPO I thought that Google would be a short-term fad in a market that I confidently noted had a low barrier to entry. Today Google has a market cap of $260bn. Had I thought very differently (okay, had I thought the polar opposite) and bought stock to back my hunch I would have recouped more than 11 times my stake in the manner of Forrest Gump when he was given Apple shares.

I was always a backer (yet only in terms of words) of Dell as it became the darling of Wall Street through the bull run in low-cost PCs in the Nineties but then, at least after the return of Michael Dell, I retained my faith in the company restoring its fortunes. Now, with Dell de-listing and facing an uncertain future, I'm not so sure.

There have been other embarrassments. I thought that Intel's Itanium processor was a shoo-in for top-end servers and even if it was not quite the ‘Itanic' of popular myth, it certainly failed to address the markets at which the company had aimed. I never really understood the attraction of Apple's iPod/iTunes and in many ways it still remains a conundrum to me.

So what price success for Mozilla's Firefox OS smartphone operating system? There can't have been many markets as competitive as smartphones today and this is a desperately hard equation, especially for a punter with such a, well, mixed record.
On the positive side, while the wealthy of North America and Western Europe discuss the respective qualities of iOS and Android platforms, the fact remains that much of the world can't afford an iPhone and Android remains a mixed bag on lower-cost handsets. Enter Firefox OS with its pure HTML5 approach promising low prices and an open market for fast apps.

The positive: even on prototype devices the OS feels slick and it's likely that many HTML5-curious and Mozilla-friendly developers will try out the platform.

What's less clear is the appetite among carriers and serious app development houses to build another OS and whether Firefox offers significant differentiation compared to rivals. Of course, nobody wants to be locked into a duopoly but spreading support across multiple platforms also comes at a cost. Also, as Nokia showed with its $20 Nokia 105 phone this week, there already appears to be a race to the bottom on price. Do Mozilla and partners have the stomach and the deep pockets to compete?

I'm pricing Firefox at even money to be a modest success, making inroads in geographies where smartphone adoption is low and also enjoying the support of intellectually curious developers along the way. But if I'm right, remember where you heard it first: from the man whose stakes have often turned out to be horse-meat.

Martin Veitch is Editorial Director at IDG Connect





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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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