Unspectacular Firefox OS is OK for low-end phones (hands-on)

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/ Updated: February 24, 2013 10:06 PM PST
An app screen on the ZTE Open with Firefox OS.
The ZTE Open is one of the lower-end phones that will bring Firefox OS to developing markets later this year. Stephen Shankland/CNET

BARCELONA, Spain--Firefox OS is real, and it works.

Mozilla's browser-based phone technology is a credible option for the emerging markets where it'll first arrive starting in the second quarter. The nonprofit debuted the first version of the software at the Mobile World Congress show in front of 700 people curious to see how well it works.

For that mobile-savvy audience, the answer is this: not well enough. For wealthier customers, Firefox OS will have a hard time standing up to the two powerhouses of the mobile market, Google's Android and Apple's iOS.

With Firefox OS, Mozilla is in a race to improve its software and attract developers and partners faster than its rivals spread to the low-end smartphone market. Major allies like Telefonica, Deutsche Telekom, Telenor, and China Mobile will help spread Firefox OS around the world to markets where feature phones still rule.

Firefox OS looks familiar to anyone who's used Android and iOS: when you turn it on, you're faced with the familiar grid of apps. Swiping left and right slides in other pages of apps. And across the bottom of each page is a fixed set of four apps: the phone dialer, a text-messaging app, the Firefox browser, and the camera app.

As with iOS, swiping to the leftmost screen launches a search app. But unlike iOS, this search app is wired not just to your own apps but also to the Firefox Marketplace and to the Web at large -- remember, this is a browser-based OS. If you find an app you like in the search results, you can pin it to one of your screens for easy future access.

The operating system runs apps with Firefox's browser engine, an approach that Mozilla promises will be able to wring more performance out of lower-end phone hardware than Android with its intermediate Java-like layer. Mozilla's favorite demo was a Web version of Zepto Labs' Cut the Rope, which does indeed work at a reasonably fluid frame rate despite having to push pixels around the screen while paying attention to the player's touch.

Firefox OS has a number of extra features so programmers can tell their Web apps to tap into phone services such as an accelerometer, battery level monitor, camera, network strength indicator, and phone dialers. At a higher level, Firefox OS app programmers can use Canvas for graphics today and WebGL for higher performance tomorrow, Mozilla promises.
The gallery app on Firefox OS presents photos as an array of thumbnails that scrolls vertically.
The gallery app on Firefox OS presents photos as an array of thumbnails that scrolls vertically. Stephen Shankland/CNET

On the lower-end Firefox OS phones I tried -- the Geeksphone Keon and ZTE Open -- touch operations were somewhat sluggish, and accurate typing was difficult. It's not clear how much of this was because of the hardware and how much because of the software, but they are low-budget phones, though. On the higher-end Geeksphone Peak, swiping and scrolling and typing worked better.

Firefox OS comes with a range of built-in apps such as Facebook and Wikipedia, and Nokia's Here provides mapping services. A long-press on the home button invokes a task switcher so you can juggle among open apps.

A contacts app lets you open up a screen full of information about people you know. It serves as a hub to phone them, send e-mail or text messages, or check their Facebook walls. Facebook integration also lets people import their contacts; Mozilla plans to add import mechanisms for services like Gmail, Yahoo Mail, and Hotmail -- something it knows how to do by virtue of its Thunderbird e-mail software for PCs.

A camera app, which also is accessible from the lock screen, has tabs for taking photos or videos, and it's got a link to the built-in gallery app. That app lets you crop photos, apply some basic color filters, adjust contrast, and take actions like sharing photos on Facebook or by Bluetooth wireless networking.

Firefox OS's gallery app lets you crop photos, apply some basic color filters, and adjust contrast.
Firefox OS's gallery app lets you crop photos, apply some basic color filters, and adjust contrast. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Using Firefox OS reminded me of early versions of Android: somewhat clunky and rough around the edges, with missing features and apps. It's improving, and it'll benefit from hardware advances, and Mozilla has some advantages to offset its major challenges.

It's definitely good, though, that Firefox OS can get a running start in the app ecosystem by mobilizing the vast army of Web programmers -- programmers who might well be happy they can reach Firefox OS customers without having to jump through nearly as many hoops as the Apple App Store or Google Play present.

Mozilla has rounded up many allies that will be essential to bring Firefox OS to market, but they're starting in developing markets where Android and iOS today are unaffordable luxuries. Those first phones will arrive in the second quarter of 2013; expect higher-end Firefox OS devices to hit the United States in 2014.

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