Introducing Firefox's Android Rival, Brought to You by Google

A woman checks her phone in front of a Mozilla Firefox poster at the Mobile World Congress on Feb. 27, 2013 in Barcelona, Spain Photograph by Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images

The first Firefox smartphones go on sale in Spain on Tuesday, targeted at cost-conscious consumers with relatively modest needs. The debut model costs $90 and comes with almost $40 in credit for prepay customers. Mozilla, a nonprofit organization dedicated to Internet openness, is also betting on the appeal of a system that shuns the idea of the app store.

To the extent there is an opening in the smartphone market, it is selling cheap phones in developing countries. The number of low-cost smartphone shipments is expected to triple by 2018, at which point it will make up almost half the overall smartphone market, according to ABI Research. If Firefox succeeds, it is much more likely to take business from Android than from Apple, which is funny considering that Mozilla is funded almost entirely by Google, which pays the organization about $300 million per year to use Google as the default search engine in its browser.

Prospects aren’t exactly bright for any upstart mobile platform. Competitors such as BlackBerry and Microsoft have had trouble persuading developers to make apps that will run on their phones. Mozilla’s approach is fundamentally different: The phones run HTML5 apps, which are much more akin to creating websites than the apps that run on Android or Apple devices. This means developers don’t have to produce different versions of their apps for different platforms—any device can run an HTML5 application.

Firefox’s backers are touting the practical implications for developers. “It’s a more open ecosystem from the beginning. It also changes the economics of app development, because it’s cheaper to get into the game as an app developer. You don’t need as many tools, you don’t need to join expensive development programs,” said Dan Appelquist of Telefónica in a video for developers produced by Mozilla.

The idea has gained some traction, and developers snapped up the first round of test phones. Still, people developing HTML5 apps rather than focusing on iOS or Android haven’t been without their frustrations. Facebook initially focused on HTML5 as a mobile strategy before deciding that was a mistake and shifting its energy toward developing apps specifically for iOS and Android. Benedict Evans, a mobile analyst, believes there’s a lot of “hyperbole and theology” running through Mozilla’s arguments advocating for openness on mobile devices.

So Mozilla hasn’t exactly proven it has to be taken seriously yet. Still, why is Google funding its own competition? The question came up when Google and Mozilla extended their agreement two years ago, even though Firefox and Chrome were competing browsers. At that time, Peter Kasting, an engineer for Google working on Chrome, argued that it made sense: What is good for the Web is good for Google. “So it’s very easy to see why Google would be willing to fund Mozilla: Like Google, Mozilla is clearly committed to the betterment of the web, and they’re spending their resources to make a great, open-source web browser,” he wrote on Google+. The company did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

Strip away the benevolence, and the argument goes like this: Google makes money when people use its search engine. If many people start using Firefox smartphones, Google could lose access to some potentially valuable information, such as details about users’ location. But the company pays Mozilla to send its users to Google rather than to Bing, just as it pays Apple to do the same on its mobile devices. Apple is reconsidering its relationship to Google—after all, Apple chose Bing as the default search engine for the new version of Siri. Presumably Microsoft would be happy to strike a deal with Mozilla as well.

“To the extent that Firefox OS works, it’s not really bad news for Google,” says Evans. “It’s not like Firefox phones are preset to use Bing.”

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