Mozilla's mobile contender is creeping closer to Android, iOS, and Windows Phone

In a market packed with Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Android, Apple, Inc.'s (AAPL) iOS, and Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) Windows Phone is there room for a fourth major smartphone operating system?  The Mozilla Foundation thinks so, and it's pursuing an aggressive path of development for its Firefox OS, which like Android is based on a Linux kernel.

On Wednesday Mozilla announced the availability of Firefox OS 1.1, a major operating system upgrade, just three months after its first high-profile Firefox smartphone shipped.

The features in the new release include:
  • Push notifications
    • Save battery life
    • Display instant alerts to the user
    • Available in iOS since v3.0 (June 2009)
    • Available in Android since v1.6 "Donut" (Oct. 2009)
    • Available in Windows Phone since v7.5 "Mango" (Sept. 2012; SDK v7.1)
  • MMS
    • Multimedia messaging service
    • Send pictures, audio, and video
    • Available in iOS since v3.0 (June 2009)
    • Fully available in Android since v1.5 "Cupcake" (April 2009)
    • Available in Windows Phone since its release (v7.0) (Nov. 2010)
  • Save content from browser
    • Images
    • Audio
    • Video (only certain formats)
  • Auto-correct when typing with keyboard.
  • Music search
    • Swipe down when in music app to access
    • Search by artist, album, or song title
  • Contact improvements

         Firefox OS
    • Long tap to add contact from call log
    • Import contacts from Gmail or Hotmail
    • Dialer suggests contacts for partially typed numbers for faster access
  • Smooth scrolling
  • Broader language support
    • 15 languages now supported
  • Email improvements
    • Attach images
    • Download images/audio from messages
    • Save working drafts offline
  • Adaptive app search

    Firefox OS
    • Found on the home screen
    • Allows faster finding of apps.
  • Calendar improvements
    • Tap a time slot in the calendar to create an event (versus having to manually input time/date)
    • Reminders
Overall, these improvements are nothing revolutionary, but they do take Firefox OS much closer to being a full-featured modern operating system like iOS, Android, or Windows Phone.  As Windows Phone's development path showed, it's a struggle to both establish a market presence and create full-featured devices; hence at times this kind of iterative approach is required.

Firefox OS is similar in some ways to Android, in that it's starting its campaign at the budget end, is based on Linux, and runs apps on web-centric programming languages.  But Firefox OS takes abstraction even a step farther using HTML5 as the programming language for its apps.

Firefox OS HTML5

The first Firefox OS smartphone -- the ZTE Corp. (SHE:000063) "Open" -- launched in July in Spain and has slowly been rolling out intertationally on various carriers.  In the U.S. it is available unlocked for a $80 USD via a seller page on eBay, Inc.'s (EBAY) site.
ZTE Open
The specs are barebones (as you would expect for that price):
  • Form Factor
    • Size:   114 x 62 x 12.5 mm (4.5 x 2.4 x 0.5 in.)
    • Weight: 120g (4.2 oz)
  • Hardware
    • Screen
      • 3.5 inches TFT LCD
      • 480 x 320 pixel
  • SoC
    • Qualcomm Inc. (QCOM) Snapdragon MSM7225A
      • 1GHz single-core ARM Cortex-A5 CPU
      • Adreno 200 GPU
  • RAM: 256MB
  • Battery
    • 1,200mAh lithium-ion (removable)
  • Storage
    • Internal: 512MB
    • External: MicroSDHC, up to 32GB
  • Camera(s)
    • Rear: 2MP (fixed-focus)
    • 352 x 288 video capture
  • Wireless/Cellular
    • 2.5G: EDGE (850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900)
    • 3G: GSM GPRS
    • 3.5G: HSDPA (850 / 1900)
    • Bluetooth: v2.1
    • WiFi: Dual-band, 802.11a/b/g/n

Mozilla stoked sales in September by briefly giving away devices for free to developers who ported an iOS or Android app to HTML5.  That deal has been discontinued -- for now at least.

Sales of the device appear to be better than expected so far; it sold out in the UK and U.S. towards the end of August (granted ZTE's expectations were low; the initial stock was only 1,000 units).  ZTE rushed to produce more units, and the phone resumed shipping last month.

For those interested in the phone either as a budget device or developer device, remember it's only 3G/3.5G capable and uses GSM standard -- that means that in the U.S. it is only compatible with AT&T, Inc.'s (T) and T-Mobile USA's networks.

Sources: Mozilla Blog, Engadget [ZTE Open review]

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