At the 2013 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, Mozilla said that 18 mobile operators have committed to launch Firefox OS phones. That's more than twice as many as were known to be working with Mozilla last month.
Firefox OS phones are expected to appear in at least nine markets this year: Brazil, Colombia, Hungary, Mexico, Montenegro, Poland, Serbia, Spain and Venezuela. They will be based on the Qualcomm's Snapdragon chipset and manufactured by Alcatel One Touch, LG and ZTE, with Huawei joining later.
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Spain-based mobile operator Telefonica expects to begin selling Firefox OS phones in Brazil, Colombia, Spain and Venezuela by mid-2013, with additional launches in Europe and Latin America to follow.
Telefonica described Firefox OS as "an alternative to current, closed mobile ecosystems that lock consumers in."
Cesar Alierta, chairman and CEO of Telefonica, heralded the imminent arrival of Firefox OS phones as an event of major importance. "2013 marks the start of a new phase in our industry, one that will be characterized by open standards," he said in a statement. "For Telefonica and the telco sector as a whole, Firefox OS is a hugely important strategic initiative to change the prevailing value chain in the digital world."
Alierta said Firefox OS will help "restore balance to the telco sector," which is another way of saying that Mozilla's free, open-source technology will make mobile carriers less dependent on iOS and Android, the mobile operating systems managed by Apple and Google, respectively.
Firefox OS might also provide developers with more freedom. In a presentation at the 2013 Mobile World Congress, Jay Sullivan, senior VP of products at Mozilla, said that many of the Web apps on his Firefox OS phone had been downloaded directly from the app developer, rather than through a store operated by an intermediary. "This idea of removing the gatekeeper and letting developers again distribute software directly to their customers is really critical to this," he said.
However, it's not clear that more openness will translate into more revenue for mobile carriers or for developers. Mozilla's work on the Web Real-Time Communications (Web RTC) standard suggests that VoIP and videoconferencing will become even more accessible and more affordable through Web apps than they are already. If anything, that means more competition for mobile carriers. And many of the most successful developers don't mind Apple's heavy-handed oversight of its App Store because their large investments in app development are more likely to be recognized and promoted by Apple than poorly coded knock-off apps from less successful developers. With platform freedom comes freedom from marketing support.
Tony Cripps, principal device analyst at Ovum, said in an email that the level of support Mozilla has attracted for Firefox OS is noteworthy and represents a huge achievement. "Neither Android nor Symbian -- the closest benchmarks in terms of broad industry sponsorship that we've previously seen -- have rallied the level of support that Firefox OS has achieved so early in its development," he said, noting that Windows Phone, BlackBerry 10 and Tizen until now have all looked more likely to succeed.
The acid test, Cripps said, will be whether Firefox OS phones perform well and attract developer interest, noting that early demonstrations of Firefox OS hardware have been underwhelming. Such concerns may be the reason the release date of the first Firefox OS phones has slipped from February 2013 back to mid-2013.
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