June 30, 2015

Samsung Sells a Million Tizen Phones as Mozilla Rethinks Firefox OS

Samsung Z1On June 29, Samsung announced that since January, it has sold over one million units of its Tizen-based Samsung Z1 smartphones in India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. According to Reuters, Samsung will "launch several more Tizen smartphones at varying prices."

The Reuters report, which did not mention a timetable, was based on a tip from an undisclosed source. The story also cited a Counterpoint study that estimated the Z1 to be the best-selling smartphone in Bangladesh in Q1 2015.

While Tizen takes off in South Asia, Mozilla has run into problems in the same region with its poorly selling "$25 phones." As several key Firefox OS developers have left to start new projects partially based on the Linux- and Firefox-based platform, Mozilla is refocusing Firefox OS on new features instead of budget pricing (see farther below).

It has been almost four years since the Linux Foundation announced it was closing the MeeGo project and launching a similarly open source Linux Tizen project with the backing of Samsung and Intel. A year later, Tizen was widely considered to be the best bet among several emerging mobile Linux OS contenders, such as Firefox OS, Jolla's Sailfish, and the Ubuntu project's promised "convergence" phones. After all, Samsung was well on its way to being the world's largest smartphone vendor, and as tensions with Google grew over Android, the company was motivated to have a backup plan. Tizen also had widespread carrier support.

Yet, Samsung barely missed being the last mobile Linux project to deliver product, just beating the Ubuntu Touch-based BQ Aquaris E4.5 Ubuntu Edition by a month. (Since then, Ubuntu Touch has appeared in higher end Meizu MX4 and BQ Aquaris E5 HD phones.)

The Tizen project was delayed by a slow development process, and a related lack of apps, but that wasn't all. As Samsung and Google patched up their differences, and Samsung continued to dominate the smartphone market with its Android phones, its commitment to Tizen phones seemed to waver.

Meanwhile, the smartphone market started to slow, and Internet of Things began to dominate the tech conversation. Samsung started pushing Tizen into new markets where Google (79 percent smartphone share) and Apple (18 percent) hadn't sewn up all but 3 percent of the market. These included wearables, where Samsung introduced the Tizen-based Gear S smartwatch, and consumer electronics, where it added Tizen to its Smart TVs.

When Samsung finally launched the world's first Tizen phone – the Z1 -- in India this January, the project seemed like an afterthought. After all the delays, including an aborted Tizen phone in Russia last year, the Z1 seemed like one of those direct-to-cable movie flops that couldn't make it in theaters.

That seems to have been a hasty judgement. A million units in two quarters is no guarantee of success in a smartphone industry that IDC projects will ship about 1.45 billion smartphones in 2015. Still, it's impressive for a platform with an untested OS, and more than many expected considering its middling price/performance ratio. The Samsung Z1 has a dual-core, 1GHz processor, 728MB RAM, a 4-inch, 800 x 480-pixel screen, and both 3.1-megapixel and VGA cameras.

The Z1 may be more powerful than some Firefox OS phones, but it's also more expensive. At 5700 Rupees, or about $90, the Z1 is $20 more than the Android One powered, India-targeted Micromax Canvas A1, which runs Android KitKat on a 1.3 GHz quad-core processor. The Canvas A1 also offers 5- and 2-megapixel cameras, and a 4.5-inch screen, although it has the same low WVGA resolution as the Z1. In Bangladesh, there's a very similar Symphony Roar Android One phone, but it has a higher $112 price.

One of Samsung's chief challenges with Tizen phones is Android compatibility, which is less of an issue with wearables and other IoT gadgets. To run Android apps, Z1 users will need to download OpenMobile ACL, which will enable over 1,000 Android apps on Tizen. The ACL release for Tizen, however, is still "coming soon."

Mozilla rethinks Firefox OS strategy amid spinoffs

While Samsung finds success with the Z1, Mozilla, which seemed to be building a sustainable business with its partners' Firefox OS phones, is rethinking its strategy. In May, Mozilla CEO Chris Beard sent an email to the Mozilla community, stating "We have not seen sufficient traction for a $25 phone, and we will not pursue all parts of the program."

Beard said the company was developing a new Ignite version of Firefox OS that will focus more on new features rather than cut-rate pricing. These were said to include support for service workers, more offline features, improved software updates, and IoT support.

Beard added: "To bridge this app gap between user expectations and the readiness of the ecosystem, we will explore implementing Android app compatibility." No details were offered, but he noted that the Android support will work "within a framework that keeps our long-term focus on the Web."

Mozilla isn't giving up entirely on emerging markets. Most of the Firefox OS phones sold around the world, such as the $40, Alcatel OneTouch built Orange Klif in Africa, cost well under $100. Yet its line of Spreadtrum designed "$25 smartphones" never took off.

The $33 Intex Cloud FX and $38 Spice Fire One Mi-FX 1, which launched in India last year, pushed specs even lower than on a typical Firefox OS phone. The single-core, 1 GHz Spreadtrum processors were accompanied by 128 MB RAM and 256 MB flash, and had 3.5-inch, 480 x 320 displays and dual-SIM 2G radios.

Beard also said Mozilla would continue a project announced in March to pursue Firefox OS feature phones, including flip-phones, with Verizon, KDDI in Japan, and LG U+ in Korea. KDDI currently offers the highest end Firefox OS phone: the quad-core KDDI Fx0, which has a 4.7-inch, 1280 x 720 screen and 4G LTE.

Mozilla has been shaken by some high-level departures in recent months, according to a June 5 report from CNET. In April, former president Li Gong and James Ho, Mozilla's senior director of mobile devices, left to form a startup code-named Gone Fishing. The company is building a web-oriented mobile OS partially based on Firefox OS, but with a less open development process and a platform that is more amenable to DRM.

Beard suggested to CNET that the departures were not voluntary. It's unclear if the same goes for the more recent departure of CTO Andreas Gal. This key developer behind the Firefox browser and Firefox OS has joined with Firefox-OS co-developer Chris Jones and Michael Vines, a former senior director of technology at Qualcomm, to develop a stripped down version of Firefox OS for IoT. The unnamed venture will use the "fundamental building blocks" of Firefox OS, Gal told CNET.

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