Mozilla, The Late-To-The-Mobile-Party Lumbering Dinosaur Of Open, Is Playing Carriers’ Pet To Make Firefox OS Fly

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The first mobile devices running Firefox OS are out in the market. It’s too early to say how well Mozilla’s fledgling open web HTML5 mobile platform is doing in its bid to steer budget buyers away from Android gateway devices. Which is, make no mistake, exactly the hope of the carriers throwing their weight and influence behind this alternative open platform.

A raft of carriers signed up to support Firefox OS at its launch announcement back in February. According to Mozilla 17 carriers are currently committed to distributing devices (namely: Am rica M vil, China Unicom, Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Hutchison Three Group, KDDI, KT, MegaFon, Qtel, SingTel, Smart, Sprint, Telecom Italia Group, Telef nica, Telenor, TMN and VimpelCom). So far only a handful of devices have gone on sale, including the ZTE Open and Alcatel One Touch. More are apparently due to be announced this year.

It is, to reiterate, the very beginning of the Firefox OS project. Telef nica started selling the first consumer handset running FFOS in Spain at the start of this month – the $90 ZTE Open. It says it won’t be breaking out sales for individual models but asked about early sales indications, a spokesman said: “The team is very happy with how it’s going in Spain.”

But it’s not just carriers putting FFOS phones in the market. Being an open platform there is scope for smaller players to get involved, such as hardware startup Geeksphone, which put out two Firefox developer preview devices (called Keon and Peak) back in April, selling out within hours. Geeksphone has now followed those up by announcing its first consumer-focused device, called the Peak+.

The Peak+ is $196 (excluding taxes) on pre-order, with a slightly higher price tag planned when it goes on sale in September. “Firefox developer preview is no longer where we want to be. We are evolving towards a consumer market,” Geeksphone CEO Javier Ag era tells TechCrunch. “Geeksphone has always been selling to any customers and users since its foundation four years and a half ago… [Initially] we went for the developer preview branding because we wanted to target those early adopters, those early users who were building up the ecosystem, and we felt that was a natural thing to do.

“Now we’re evolving to a more consumer-oriented perspective – back to our origins. We will keep of course a developer-friendly brand, with some unique characteristics, but target everybody.”

So far, so good – for Firefox OS and for the diversity of the mobile ecosystem. Even Android fans can probably get behind the idea that another open mobile platform offering choice is A Good Thing. Some may even concede that challenging Google’s ability to dominate and control the mobile ecosystem may be ultimately beneficial, too (assuming Firefox OS can build momentum, of course). Diversity can foster innovation, after all.

But it’s not all good. Mozilla is not universally liked in the open-source space. Quite the opposite. The organisation has a reputation for “viciously defending its brand,” as MeeGo startup Jolla’s Marc Dillon put it in thinly veiled comments earlier this year at the Mobile World Congress tradeshow – where Firefox OS was being very publicly endorsed by carrier club, the GSMA. Dillon shared the stage with Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker and Canonical’s Mark Shuttleworth in a panel discussion about open platforms, and the underlying tensions between the smaller players and the grand old dinosaur of open were palpable.

Mozilla has a reputation for being slow, lumbering and having teeth. Much like its dinosaur logo. You could describe it as the Microsoft of the open-source movement. Which doesn’t sound like the kind of Android-challenging champion the mobile world needs right now. And yet Mozilla’s corporate attitude and approach have clearly made a lot of (equally conservative) carriers comfortable about working with it – which is perhaps the only way Android can be challenged at this point, being as it owns circa 70 percent of the global smartphone market.

Here’s the latest example of Mozilla’s corporate ethos in action. Last week the organisation contacted publications (including TechCrunch) that had reported on Geeksphone’s new “Firefox OS” Peak+ device to request a “correction.” Mozilla’s email said the Peak+ is not “Firefox OS certified” so cannot be described as a Firefox OS phone. Rather it should be described as being “based on Boot to Gecko” technology – the initial moniker of Mozilla’s Firefox OS project.

Here’s the full statement Mozilla requested accompany the Peak+ news:

Today, Geeksphone announced the pre-sale of a new device based on Boot to Gecko technology. We want to clarify that this new phone that was announced is based on Boot to Gecko technology with pre-release software, but is not a certified or supported Firefox OS device.

As I noted in an update to the TechCrunch story, this is an issue of brand control. Technically speaking, Geeksphone has not yet jumped through the certification hoops to achieve FFOS certification. But it’s highly likely that that’s because it’s not possible for Geeksphone to do that yet. The startup declined to comment about the certification issue when contacted by TechCrunch, noting that they are partners with Mozilla and have been working closely with the organisation to build the Peak+.

From the outside looking in, it’s hard not to conclude that, despite this apparent partnership, Geeksphone is being treated as a second-class citizen vs. the carriers backing FFOS. After all, Telef nica’s first FFOS device (the ZTE Open) does carry the Firefox OS brand. So it is possible to gain certification at this early stage – at least, if you are involved with one of the carriers backing Mozilla’s open-platform play.

It’s possible that Geeksphone, with its more limited and therefore targeted resources, hasn’t been able to divert the required effort to gaining certification yet. But Mozilla’s response, when I asked for clarification about its Firefox certification guidelines, suggests otherwise – since they revealed they are still finalising their processes. Which in turn suggests the Peak+ branding bottleneck is being caused by the lumbering dinosaur, not the nimble startup. (Case in point: it took Mozilla’s PR one whole day to obtain these very partial answers to my certification questions.)

Q. What do device makers have to do to achieve certification as a Firefox OS device?
A. Because each device maker is a separate entity, the details of Firefox OS certification vary slightly from one to another. We will be publishing more details about how future partners can become Firefox OS certified soon.

Q. Do Firefox OS certified devices have access to specific apps that non-certified devices don’t? Such as the Firefox Marketplace?
A. As conversations with interested parties continue, we are finalizing our guidelines for device makers.

Tl;dr

  • Mozilla (apparently) hasn’t decided what FFOS certification entails – therefore it’s being slow
  • But Mozilla is also being inconsistent because carrier supported devices have been able to obtain the Firefox OS brand stamp
  • Ergo, Mozilla is playing favourites – specifically favouring its carrier supporters

Really, those conclusions should not surprise, given Mozilla’s late-to-the-mobile-market position and reputation for cumbersome development. It’s trying to turn those weaknesses into strengths by cosying up to the only folk likely to laud them. No wonder so many carriers are so keen to work with this open-source alternative. Mozilla’s branding strictures and usage enforcement are corporate modus operandi that will reassure the conservative telcos they are treading familiar ground with Firefox OS; that this open ecosystem is nonetheless policed to order, not encouraged towards anything-goes chaos.

Mozilla is demonstrating its willingness to back carriers’ desire to control and to own in order to differentiate itself from Android’s free-for-all which has ended up undermining telcos’ control of users and accelerating the decline of their traditional revenue streams. Fast-tracking carrier-backed devices to the front of the FFOS branding certification queue is just symptomatic of that underlying pro-telco strategy.

Mozilla has made something of a Faustian pact to try to establish an alternative open mobile ecosystem. And with Android so rampantly dominant, that may have been a necessary trade-off to give FFOS a fleeting chance. But it still leaves something of a bitter taste to anyone who roots for David over Goliath.