August 22, 2013

As Ubuntu Stumbles, Firefox OS Rolls On

The Ubuntu Edge smartphone today failed by about $19 million to make its $30 million Indiegogo funding goals, and the roughly 20,000 investors will receive refunds. Earlier this week, the first Firefox OS phone available in the U.S. and U.K. -- the unlocked version of the low-end, 3.5-inch ZTE Open handset – sold out on eBay in three days.

Ubuntu edgeIn the long run, these developments may not be very significant. Yet, they reinforce the growing perception that while other open source mobile Linux projects are fading away (Open WebOS), delaying releases (Tizen), and getting diverted by sideshows (Ubuntu), Mozilla and its Firefox OS partners have been marching steadily forward, beating the others to market and winning over customers.

Granted, ZTE's initial shipment of its unlocked, $80 Firefox OS phone was only 2,000 units-- a new batch is due in September – and the Ubuntu Edge failure was not as bad as it might look. Canonical now knows who will buy the first 20,000 third-party Ubuntu for Phones smartphones when they arrive next spring or summer, and with the Edge's $12,812,776 in contributions, it handily broke the world record for crowdfunding. The project gained significant public awareness from the stunt.

Yet, Canonical already knew most Ubuntu lovers would try an Ubuntu Touch OS that runs seamlessly over desktops, phones, and tablets. While the Edge's demise doesn't much affect Ubuntu for Phones on a practical level, it has tainted the project with an aura of failure before it even started. It may have been gutsy, but it also smacked of desperation.

By contrast, Mozilla's Firefox OS project has a whiff of confidence and competence about it. Selling out 2,000 phones may not be a big deal, but the fact that ZTE introduced an unlocked version of the ZTE Open at all suggests that early sales of the Telefonica model in Spain have been encouraging. Further evidence that Firefox OS is on the move came this week from LG. A Bulgarian LG exec revealed to Dvenik.bg [translated] that it plans to release a Firefox OS product early next year.

While this could be a mirage – the exec said it depends on consumer demand – it could be a major coup for Mozilla. It also would appear to further distance hopes that LG will apply the Linux-based WebOS platform it acquired from HP earlier this year to mobile devices. LG plans to use the OS in its smart TVs.

ZTE-openZTE and Alcatel, which offers a similarly modest One Touch Fire handset, have collectively shipped Firefox OS phones in Spain, Poland, Colombia, and Venezuela. Other launches are due soon in Hungary, followed by Portugal, Greece, Brazil, and other countries via carriers including Telefonica, Deutsche Telekom, and Telenor. Meanwhile, Foxconn (Han Hai Precision) has promised to ship five Firefox OS devices, and Sony will jump in in 2014. A more robust Firefox OS smartphone -- the unlocked, dual-core Peak+-- can be pre-ordered from Geeksphone, after its earlier Peak and Keon phones quickly sold out this spring.

This is not to say Firefox OS has already won the battle -- we have yet to see sales statistics – but right now it at least appears to be executing quite smartly.

Tizen Leaks, and Jolla Books

Despite Mozilla's head start, the other Linux projects appear to be on track. Samsung delayed its Tizen phone launch to the third or fourth quarter, and has been rumored to be slowing its Tizen development, yet some phones do appear to be on the way. This week, Dutch site TechTastic [translated] revealed some specs for a Tizen phone found in a Samsung UAPROF system. Like the dual-core Samsung GT-I8805 Tizen phone the site spotted in May, the SMZ9005 offers LTE and 1280 x 720 resolution. This time, the processor was identified as a Qualcomm Snapdragon with a Krait core, although it's unclear if it's the same, renamed phone or something new.

Earlier this month, the Tizen Indonesia [translated] blog cited "Korean sources" in claiming that Samsung plans to introduce its first Tizen smartphone in October in Japan, France, the U.S., China, and Russia. Carriers include NTT DoCoMo, Orange, France Telecom, Huawei, and Sprint, says the story. The report followed Systena's July announcement that it will ship the world's first Tizen tablet later this year. The quad-core, 10-inch tablet is aimed at Japan.

Meanwhile Jolla's underdog Sailfish OS project has attracted a dedicated core of developers and enthusiasts who argue that the MeeGo-based Sailfish is the most capable platform of the bunch. This week, Jolla said it had booked orders for its first batch of Jolla phones from customers in 136 countries. No numbers were cited, however, and these are not full pre-orders, but only 40- and 100-Euro vouchers toward the 399-Euro ($533) Jolla phone due in the fourth quarter.

Mozilla Keeps it Simple

In the long run, Firefox OS may fail to find traction, and one or more of the other Linux contenders may rise to the fore. Yet, since we surveyed the mobile Linux scene last October, Mozilla and its partners have executed with the most effectiveness. They have attracted considerable interest among developers, and apparently consumers, as well.

Some might argue that Firefox OS is limited in capabilities and is neither a true smartphone OS nor a true Linux platform in the traditional sense. Unlike its Linux counterparts, the HTML5 browser-oriented Firefox OS eschews familiar Linux middleware and native application development components. Yet, the phones are affordable, and though the interface is unremarkable, it seems easy to use. Those attributes, as well as features like an FM radio, position it nicely for the emerging-nation market that all smartphone vendors are keen on tapping. But the road is steep. Android owns almost 80 percent of the smartphone market, and the prices keep dropping.