Dev

The first Firefox phone is cheap, simple, & totally democratic [hands-on]

Image Credit: Jolie O'Dell / VentureBeat

We’ve been posting furiously about Firefox OS since it was just a gleam in Mozilla’s reptilian eye. So when we trotted down to the foundation’s San Francisco headquarters yesterday afternoon for a quick meeting, we could barely contain our excitement when they presented us with our very own review unit.

And who better to present it than developer advocate Chris Heilmann and mobile hardware chief Li Gong?

“We see the mobile world degenerating into the old desktop world, where the whole platform is owned by a small number of companies that have their own technologies and try to lock users into their own ecosystems,” Gong said.

“We want to level that playing field and re-create a mobile Internet that is free and open so that the user has choice.”


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Early days & first impressions

Gong heads up Mozilla’s operations in Asia and is also responsible for the foundation’s activity and relationships with mobile device OEMs. That activity is still in a nascent state, and the device we got is proof of that fact.

The first Firefox OS devices are nothing like the heavy, huge pieces being churned out for the Android platform. Nor are they anything akin to Apple’s slick, slender, pricy models. The ZTE we received is lightweight in its plastic shell and small enough to fit comfortably in a child’s hands. From the first touch, it’s obvious this isn’t an iOS/Android competitor.

And from the first look, it’s immediately apparent that the UI is intended for a different audience, as well. I’ve been loving my new Windows Phone, which comes jam-packed with enough delightful animations, slides, pops, and flips to make the cast of Looney Tunes look like the residents of Madame Tussaud’s. By contrast, Firefox OS itself is incredibly simple. It’s brightly colored with large icons, ideal for a first-time smartphone user. Its Marketplace has a limited but serviceable range of apps (and yes, even on a web-centric OS, these apps do work offline). The UI doesn’t have a whirl of sliders and pull-downs and pop-ups. The camera app has a grand total of five Instagram-like effects.

But as with everything Mozilla makes, it’s important to remember we’re looking at a rough draft of what Firefox OS-powered devices will eventually become.

“There are a lot of people very interested in building Firefox OS devices, and there’s a lot more happening,” said Gong, alluding to upcoming deals with more high-end smartphone manufacturers. While he couldn’t name names (or specs or price points), he did say that “it’s just a matter of time” before we start seeing Firefox OS on North America-grade smartphones.

Access for all

For now, however, Heilmann emphasized that Firefox OS was intended to bring a taste of democracy into the global market, where phones are often the only way to access the web.

“This is replacing feature phones, not smartphones,” he said. Getting Internet access, he continued, “shouldn’t be a matter of how rich you are.”

And that’s why the first Firefox OS phones have been launching in places like Colombia and Venezuela, developing areas where Internet access is both sorely needed and sorely lacking.

“In India, parts of the country don’t have Wi-Fi or wireless coverage — or much power, either,” said Gong. “But they would like a little phone where the whole family can huddle around it and make calls or watch TV. There’s a lot of usage of smart devices that doesn’t conform to the North American ideal of how things should be.

“Our vision is not to be only high-end but to serve the underserved and unserved.”

Breaking into the North American market, where overpowered and overpriced smartphones are the norm, “would have been a much different game,” said Heilmann.

“There’s an injustice that people have to have the best smartphone to get on the web. … We support the countries and markets that nobody else does. The big impact of Firefox OS is that you can reach millions of new users that you can’t reach right now.”

For developers, construction workers, & kids

That’s one of the incentives for building HTML5 apps packaged for Firefox OS, Heilmann said. Also, the strategy of launching in the developing world first enables developers in those areas to build applications most needed then and there. Whereas a U.S. dev shop might want to build a fantasy football game, a Venezuelan dev shop might be more inclined to build a low-data-usage app for accessing agricultural information or local news.

But the cheaper devices, which are now selling on eBay directly from ZTE for a mere $80, are also a good option for a child’s or preteen’s first phone (which, as Heilmann notes, will inevitably end up in a toilet or swimming pool or other small body of water), a travel device, a work phone, or other type of secondary device. At that price, they’re practically disposable for the likes of VentureBeat readers.

But regardless of the high-end/low-end debates, developers have been aching to get these devices. They’re new and exciting, and developers love nothing more than a rare new toy, no matter the price.

“I’m incredibly happy about this,” said Heilmann of the eBay sales. “In the past seven months, every tweet I’ve had is, ‘How can I get my hands on this device?’”

Said Gong, “One critical factor is to make sure developers want to play with it and develop apps for it, maybe even to turn it into something else.”

And with that, here’s the thing you’ve all been so eager to play with.

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