Firefox wants to steal Africa away from Android

One of the most interesting players helping provide cheap smartphones is Mozilla. With its Firefox OS it both offers a route to a much cheaper smartphone and an OS that is not the dominant “dark star”, Android.

Russell Southwood spoke to Mozilla’s VP, Planning and Ecosystem Rick Fant about what it’s doing and how it will impact Africa.

The rationale for Firefox OS is that Mozilla felt that it had to follow its users on to mobile or risk losing out. Also as an organization that was “dedicated to keeping the power of the Web in people’s hands” it wanted to be able to give its users a crucial element of choice.

”The web is going mobile. The web on mobile has all the same advantages as on the desktop. We have to move with the users to the mobile space. We want to provide something that is open and essentially free access and provides support for multiple devices.” He stressed that Firefox OS was “open and free and respected.”

The product of this rationale is Firefox OS 2.0 which is a web-based interface for smartphones that has “all the same properties as a desktop. Most of the components have been built from HTML and it is a rich and capable technology.”

So how many users does this challenger mobile OS have?:”We’re an OS provider to OEMs and operators and they don’t share their numbers. But there are millions of Firefox OS users globally.” It started in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia but is now going into Africa.

Mozilla already had an interest and a presence in Africa through both the Foundation and the company:”The web in Africa is a liberating force for addressing poverty and opening up education. What we’re doing now is an extension of work we’ve already done. We want to provide mobile as a low cost access point.”

How the process works is that Mozilla offers the Firefox OS and links mobile operators with vendors who can build extremely cheap smartphones, the likes of Alcatel Lucent (soon to merge with Nokia), ZTE and Huawei:”We say to the operator that Firefox OS is an open platform. It’s app store is open to all and you’ll not be beholden to an existing OS company.”

“Go and talk to one of the vendors about capabilities and prices and use the OS and what the vendor has to create the consumer product you want. We enable the partners to go forward with this. We are not making smartphones.”

So how low is the price of a low cost smartphone?:”Cherry Mobile in the Philippines has selected a model that sells for US$22. At the other end of the scale another company has the SXO which sells for at least US$600 but that’s a bit of an outlier. We try to stay with an entry level price that’s below US$150 and most are in the US$30-50 range.”

At this price, there obviously limitations:”It’s a relatively low spec device with a 3.5” screen and a simple case. There’s no frills but it’s a modern chipset and it’s capable of running web apps like Facebook and Twitter. It might not run 4-5 at the same time as there are memory limitations. All have cameras and in the case of two of the Alcatel phones – Fire S and Fire E – they have front cameras. They are currently 3G, not 4G”.

“The smartphone experience is not only about communications but sharing content. We’re making sure users in emerging markets can create their own content. There’s a product called Webmaker on the desktop which we’ve transitioned to mobile. Any SME can use this template to create an app. Users will be app creators, not just web consumers”.

“It’s going to be much more local as European and US apps are not so relevant. There might be a community of hundred rather than millions and there will be lots of small apps, not just big ones. We’ve been approached dozens of people, including music services and taxi apps asking how we can help them.”

“There is no control point. If you can get a url of your service to the consumer, it’s a direct consumer relationship. You don’t have to go through the Apple Store or Google Play.”

“We’re trying to promote operator billing as a standard payment mechanism. But operators in Africa are ‘old school’, wanting big percentage. We are educating operators in what has worked elsewhere. It needs to be more like 7-10%. Volume does matter.”

“If you want to hold on to high rev shares, you will be by-passed. But we’ve not made a lot of traction in this to be honest.”

Firefox OS screens
Firefox OS screens

It sees these cheap phones as targeted at two overlapping groups: for those who are new to the Internet or those who are transitioning from featurephones. It gives them apps, communications and integration features. And at this low end price, it’s hard not to see how over a 2-5 year period (depending on the market) how at least 50-80% of users will be smartphone users.

Orange announced at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona that it would be rolling out the Orange Klif. The Orange Klif offers connectivity speeds of up to 21 Mbps, is dual SIM, and includes a two-megapixel camera and micro-SD slot. The Orange Klif is the first Firefox OS phone powered by a MediaTek processor.

The 3G Firefox OS smartphone is exclusive to Orange and will be available from Q2 in 11 of Orange’s Africa markets, including, but not limited to, Egypt, Senegal, Tunisia, Cameroon, Botswana, Madagascar, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger, Kenya, and Mauritius.

MTN is also offering a Firefox OS phone. According to MTN, the Fire E features a 4.5-inch 960×540 display as well as a dual-core 1.2Ghz processor.

The device also features 512MBs of RAM and 4GBs of expandable storage. To add to the features, the Fire E also packs in 5MP main camera and a VGA-quality front-facing camera.

“It sees one of the advantages of the phone is that it can be easily set up for four of the 11 official languages, namely English, Afrikaans, isiZulu and Xhosa. More broadly, Mozilla is supporting as many languages “as it humanly can and we have vibrant local communities.”

Among 19 global operators signing up to the open web device initiative in Barcelona was Etisalat although to date they do appear to have made any Africa-specific, handset announcements.

So why are mobile operators jumping at the Firefox OS?:”They’ve realized it’s not just about the device. It’s about data access and data at a price. Orange has bundled 6 months of web access with its phone. That’s critical to new users.”

The world’s “zen slap” now finds the former “masters of the universe” fighting to be let back into the mobile OS space:”Mobile operators and OEMs now see Google’s mobile services as an environment where they are being pushed out.”

“They are being made into a dumb pipe. They’re looking at an alternative with a rich ecosystem. They’re looking for the ability to customize and stay in the value chain.”

“There is a rush of Android clones and these have some options for customization. The issue is still what Google will do next. Google might make a left rather than a right turn.” In other words, Google might the versions of its Android platforms used by clones unsupported.

“This is more than just Mozilla pushing economics and products. It’s all about our mission – pushing the free and open web and the pivot to mobile.”

So the next big behavior change is how wider numbers of Africans will adopt the Internet on mobile and how literacy (ability to read, functional and tech) will become more important as this transition takes place. Maybe someone will actual lydevise something that’s as popular as Facebook to provide people with simple steps, aspirational literacy on this new generation of phones?

By Balancing Act

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Firefox wants to steal Africa away from Android