Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Will Firefox OS win where webOS didn't?

Two separate but interconnecting news stories this week: The announcement that mobile operators including Telefonica, Telenor, America Movil and Deutche Telecom all plan to bring Firefox OS to market in new smartphones; and HP finally sold webOS to LG for use in smart TVs.

The connection?   webOS was based on the premise that beyond basic phone features, all content, games, media and services could and should be delivered through the web (as web apps), not with native applications installed on the phone.   Firefox OS as a new player to the smartphone arena also thinks HTML 5 based web apps will unlock the walled gardens built by Google and Apple around Android and iOS, because you don’t need to go to an app store to use a web app.

The logic is certainly sound – for developers in the HTML 5/JavaScript world, it doesn’t matter if you are using a PC, a Mac an iPad or an Android phone, with some minor adjustments for screen size, you only need to develop for one platform.   Lamentably, it didn’t work out for Palm/HP so what is different now and why have a litany of mobile operators signed-up?  

This story is ultimately about control and ownership of services that mobile operators feel are being ceded to Google, Apple and OTT (over-the-top) content players.  For mobile operators, having a customizable smartphone environment they can call their own, together with their powerful distribution channels places their brands back in the driving seat of service innovation.

Because of the openness and use of HTML 5 & JavaScript across all aspects of the device – even the dialer –mobile operators should be able to integrate Firefox OS tightly with the network to take advantage of investments being made in technologies such as VoLTE and RCS (rich communication services), essentially showcasing their own services over OTT players.  For consumers, the operator’s own web app store will be the first (but not only) port of call for new applications and services, providing additional revenue sources.  We can see why this begins to look like a “get well plan” for ARPU growth.

So will developers jump on the HTML 5 development bandwagon, or stay hitched to iOS and Android?   It turns out that many of the apps available today are coded as web apps in HTML 5, cunningly disguised as native apps and packaged for iOS and Android.   For the developer community, this makes for easy portability between platforms.  It’s also a strategy adopted by Blackberry for fast ramp-up of their app portfolio in Blackberry 10 OS.  The challenge has been performance and integration – web apps run more slowly than native apps and historically, you couldn't access all the cool smartphone features such as multitouch.   This has largely been addressed, but with the compromise that developers may need to modify code differently to access the “smart” features of different operating systems.

There have also been discussions about the low price point of Firefox OS devices allegedly making them ideal for South American and Asian markets.    However, given shared components and specifications, it seems unlikely that Android smartphones would be any more expensive than Firefox OS smartphones (short of operator subsidy) meaning that the two operating systems will likely duke it out, market by market.

So the difference between webOS and Firefox OS and critically, the potential for Firefox OS success is largely about timing and messaging.     Mozilla and Firefox OS are seen by mobile operators as a required strategic counter to Android and Apple hegemony.  Further, Mozilla’s ethos is attractive in a way that HP never could be, primarily because mobile operators don’t believe that Mozilla will ever compete with them for brand status or control of the eco-system.


  1. Andrew, good insight and I think as well as this being an opportunity in a head-to-head battle this can also enable segmentation of the consumer and business mobile device market as it matures with smartphone penetration rising toward saturation; in the end though, the operators need to meet consumers needs and buying criteria, something they are typically slow/bad at - and so a critical component to address to make this a success.

  2. I understand the connection between webOS and FirefoxOS but you knowledge of webOS seems to limited as "webOS was based on the premise that beyond basic phone features, all content, games, media and services could and should be delivered through the web (as web apps), not with native applications installed on the phone." is incorrect. A better comparison would be with Android. Android applications are built with (something like) Java, webOS applications are built on HTML5, CSS and javascript.