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Sunday, February 24, 2013

Mozilla Builds an Operating System for a Firefox Smartphone

Apple and Google are getting a nonprofit competitor, which aims to swamp them by using Web-based technologies that act like smartphone apps.

Mozilla, the nonprofit company that created and maintains the Firefox Web browser, has announced it will release a smartphone operating system around June that handset makers can use to make an inexpensive phone. Mozilla envisions that the phone would be sold in poorer countries with few smartphones, probably for $80 to $100 before subsidies, Mozilla said.

By comparison, an iPhone 5 costs $650 to $850 without a subsidy from a carrier, which usually offers the phone for less but locks the customer into a long-term contract. An Android phone such as the Samsung Galaxy III S costs $600.

“This is the start of what will undoubtedly be a third ecosystem,” after Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS, Gary Kovacs, the chief executive of Mozilla, said in an interview before the announcement. “The next 2 billion smartphone users will come from the devloping world.”

Phone makers including LG, Huawei, TCL, and ZTE already plan to manufacture phones with the new operating system. On Sunday Mozilla showed models of phones from TCL and ZTE at a telecommunications industry meeting in Barcelona, Spain.

The display models of Firefox OS look and work much like the Apple or Google phones, and are available in more colors and with different bodies, including hard metal and rubber. Owners of the phone can send texts and e-mail, use a Web browser and camera among other features.

Just as important as a low price for the phone’s success, however, is how Mozilla plans to create and sell apps. Like Apple and Google, Mozilla plans to offer a store for its phones, in which developers can offer phone apps, like games, information, or specialized maps and some of them will be free.

Unlike Android or iOS, which require a developer to learn a special way of writing software for each respective operating system, developers on Firefox OS will! write their apps in HTML5, a commonly understood language for writing Web pages.

The Firefox OS marketplace will have just a few apps, including Wikipedia, Twitter, Accuweather, a Web news reader called Pulse, and an audio service called SoundCloud. Mr. Kovacs said the ease of learning to write for Firefox would make possible a rapid growth of apps in local languages and for different cultural needs.

“There are about 100,000 iOS developers, and 400,000 Android developers, but there are 10 million Web developers,” Mr. Kovacs said. “They will be able to work with this, almost out of the box. One million people in Brazil, or a half-million in Poland, would be enough.”

Besides Brazil, which has a population of about 196 million people, or Poland, with 38 million, initial countries to get the phone include Colombia, Hungary, Mexico, Montenegro, Serbia, Spain and Venezuela.

In early February, Microsoft and Huawei jointly announced a $150 smartphone aimed at seven African countries that runs on the Windows Mobile operating system. To date, Mozilla does not have a presence in Africa, one of the world’s fastest-growing mobile markets.

Mozilla announced the phone operating system along with with 15 different mobile phone operators, including China Unicom and Sprint, the four device manufacturers, and associated hardware providers. It is not yet clear how much each company will spend engaging outside developers, who still must learn how to build and sell apps instead of making Web pages. For the true believers in a free Web at Mozilla, that is worth the trouble, since apps tend to be controlled by the company that makes the operating system.

Besides the apps available on the phone, a search feature in the phone does an impressive job anticipating what the customer is searching for, with fast-moving graphics illustrating choices.

Typing in the letter â€! œj,” fo! r example, brought up a picture of Jackie Robinson. Adding two letters to make “jaz” suggested “jazz,” with a picture of Louis Armstrong. With “jaze,” the suggestion was “al Jazeera,” along with a photo of its newsroom.

While the phone could then go to the Arabic version of the Web site, it could not manage a conversion to English, suggesting the proprietors of the site would have to change something in their code to make it work for the phone.

Mr. Kovacs said that problems like that would be solved quickly, much the way some 400,000 volunteers have contributed to fixing bugs in Firefox since the first browser was introduced in 2002.

“Our quality assurance will follow the same path,” he said. “We get feedback and we address the problems.”