Firefox vs Ubuntu: Pick Me!
SHANGHAI -- Mobile Asia Expo -- With their booths just 20 meters apart in the cavernous Shanghai New International Exhibition Center at Mobile Asia Expo, it wasn't hard to see that open source champions Mozilla and Ubuntu share similar ambitions.
Both are working on a low-cost mobile handset operating system (OS) aimed at helping carriers and vendors break the duopoly of the big two platforms, Apple Inc.'s iOS and Google's Android. (See 5 Challengers to Apple & Android.)
Right now, Mozilla has a clear lead with its Firefox OS. The first devices hit the streets on July 2, when Telefónica SA offers a ZTE Corp. device (the ZTE Open) for €69 (US$90) to its customers in Spain. Firefox also enjoys the backing of heavyweights such as Deutsche Telekom AG and Qualcomm Inc.
"Operators want more choice for their users besides Android and iOS," says Dan Horner, product manager for Firefox OS. "In the future we will take this to higher spec handsets, but at the beginning we're very much looking to feature phone users in emerging markets."
The initial phones, from ZTE and TCL Communication (Alcatel One Touch), will hit the stores in Latin America and Eastern Europe in the coming weeks.
One major attraction of the devices is that Web content is immediately accessible. Users don't have to download and store dedicated apps and that's important for bandwidth-constrained markets. Firefox also allows operators to offer their own custom apps, such as the mobile data meter, built by Telefónica (another feature appreciated by emerging market customers).
With a massive developer community about 8 million strong, Firefox has attracted an impressive slate of supporters that includes Telefónica, Singapore Telecommunications Ltd. (SingTel) and Telenor ASA -- all of which have numerous emerging market operations -- along with handset vendors LG Electronics Inc. and Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and contract manufacturer king Foxconn Electronics Inc., which plans to hire up to 3,000 people to make Firefox OS devices.
Ubuntu has a similar pitch. "Operators are interested in new OSs that allow them to differentiate their services compared with what they get from iOS and Android," says Richard Collins, Ubuntu Mobile product manager. "OEMs are looking for things that are cost-effective to manufacture."
The one difference is that Ubuntu is not confining itself to entry-level consumers in emerging markets. It sees mid-tier users in all markets as potential customers. It also puts greater stress on the ability of handset players and operators to customize the user interface.
But these are early days. The first full software release won't be available until October and handsets won't arrive until 2014.
Ubuntu doesn't have Firefox's A-list of backers, either. Collins says handset manufacturers need to feel there is interest from mobile operators before they commit.
But it has just announced a Carrier Advisory Group that includes operators such as Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica, KT Corp. and LG, all of which are Firefox supporters. (See Ubuntu Creates Carrier Advisory Group.)
And like Firefox, it has interest from the apps developer community: A recent poll by Appcelerator found that 25 percent of developers were "very interested" in Mozilla and 19 percent in Ubuntu, ahead of other alternative OSs such as Tizen, Kindle Fire and BlackBerry 10.
The operators are hedging, but they're clearly desperate for an OS alternative.
-- Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading