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. 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.
On the lower-end Firefox OS phones I tried -- the Geeksphone Keon andFirefox 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. -- 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.
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.
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.