Mozilla overhauls Firefox smartphone plan to focus on quality, not cost

After its $25 phones fail to dent the dominance of Google and Apple, the Firefox backer will try to compete using technological superiority -- and maybe by adding key Android apps, too.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise processors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, science Credentials
  • I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Stephen Shankland
14 min read

Mozilla CEO Chris Beard speaks at Mobile World Congress 2015 in Barcelona.
Mozilla CEO Chris Beard speaks at Mobile World Congress 2015 in Barcelona. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Mozilla has revamped its Firefox OS mobile software project after concluding that ultra-affordable $25 handsets aren't enough to take on the biggest powers of the smartphone world, CNET has learned.

The nonprofit organization rose to prominence with the success of its Firefox Web browser a decade ago, but it's having trouble achieving the same success with its Firefox operating system for smartphones. According to a Thursday email from new Chief Executive Chris Beard, Mozilla has changed its strategy to a new "Ignite" initiative that emphasizes phones with compelling features, not just with lower price tags. It's also considering letting its operating system run apps written for its top rival, Google's Android.

"We will build phones and connected devices that people want to buy because of the experience, not simply the price," Beard said in the email to members of the broader community of people involved in Mozilla's projects. "We have not seen sufficient traction for a $25 phone, and we will not pursue all parts of the program." (For the full text of the email, see below.)

The shift in Mozilla's strategy shows just how hard it is for the nonprofit to adapt to the modern era in which smartphones are central to our electronic lives and and the computing industry's attention. At the same time, for Mozilla, its principles of openness are at least as important as sales and market share. While a retooled version of Firefox OS may not power your next smartphone, the organization hopes its operating system may influence the device's capabilities. But if Mozilla wants to spread its gospel to the mobile world, it must adapt.

To be sure, it's hard to make a dent in the massive smartphone market -- which tallied sales of $96 billion and shipments of 310 million phones in the first quarter of 2015, according to market research firm GfK. Mozilla is in good company: Microsoft, Ubuntu, BlackBerry and Nokia also have struggled to compete with Apple's iOS and Google's Android, the two dominant operating systems for smartphones and tablets.

Mozilla is in a hard place, said Avi Greengart, an analyst with Current Analysis: apps are at the heart of the mobile market today, and Android and iOS dominate that world.

"If you are going to try to play in that world, you need to offer something that is so valuable that people are willing to give up access to the broader ecosystem," he said. "In the mass market, that's basically impossible."

Mozilla's plight could affect even those who don't use its software. The group has worked for more than a decade to make the Web more powerful and to give people control over their online lives despite prying governments and money-hungry corporations. Plenty of people would like to see those values in the mobile market even if their phone doesn't sport Mozilla's orange fox icon, but those values just aren't in play today.

Ignite elements

The Ignite initiative began weeks ago but only had been disclosed to staff in secrecy. Thursday's email shared some details with the broader community of people who contribute to Mozilla's projects.

Mozilla launched Firefox OS in 2013 with the goal of breaking open the "walled gardens" that confine iOS and Android users and bringing Internet services to millions of people who today can't afford smartphones.

Now Mozilla's Ignite plan includes several technology components. Among them are support for service workers -- a technology Google has championed to bring new power to Web apps -- including the ability to better work offline; an improved way of providing software updates; continued work to expand Firefox OS beyond just phones to other Internet-connected devices; and support for flip phones and other products more familiar to people upgrading from lower-end feature phones.

In Beard's note to staff, he included this boiled-down version of the Ignite plan:

Today we're moving into the next phase of Firefox OS, focusing more on the user experience, and tying Firefox OS more deeply into our mission and our community. We will build phones and connected devices that people want to buy because of the experience, not simply the price. And we will seek out opportunities that align with our relentless pursuit of the Mozilla mission, our strategy of building great products & empowering people, and the impact we aim to have in the world.

Changing strategies brings new risks. The market for midrange and higher-end phones already is packed with Android options, and they get cheaper with each passing year. It'll take time for Mozilla to come up with a sales pitch as easy to understand as a low price tag. Although running Android apps could make the operating system more appealing, it also could require more powerful hardware that makes phones more expensive. Firefox also isn't a household name when it comes to phones.

For Mozilla, the risk of not bringing its mission to the mobile market is an even worse outcome. That would mean Apple and Google will have an easier time locking customers into technology ecosystems that extend from the operating system into areas like app sales and online services.

That kind of lock-in can bring restrictions -- if you buy a movie through Apple's iTunes, you can't watch it on Android, for example, or you get more features when using the Google Docs word-processing with Google's Chrome browser than with Apple's Safari. Because iOS apps only run on iOS and Android apps only run on Android, anyone wanting to switch from one OS to the other likely will have to repurchase any games, utilities or other software. And it's not necessarily so easy to transfer all your data -- messages, photos, videos, fitness logs.

Mozilla put the spotlight on $25 Firefox OS phones for the last year, but it's not the only option for the organization. France-based carrier Orange offers slightly more powerful models that cost up to $40, including network service in many African countries, for example, and in Japan, KDDI's Fx0 offers a quad-core processor and relatively large, high-resolution screen at a price of about $410.

Hints of Android support

Mozilla's alternative is to embrace the Web. No matter what operating system a device uses, it needs a Web browser. Firefox OS thus runs apps written for the Web, which in principle means those apps run on any other device, too.

The KDDI Fx0, the most powerful smartphone on the market, has a 4.7-inch 1280x720 screen.
The KDDI Fx0, the most powerful smartphone on the market, has a 4.7-inch 1280x720 screen. Stephen Shankland/CNET

The Web's universality means there are plenty of programmers who know how to use it. But it's been tough for Firefox OS to get all the apps it needs. Although Mozilla's long-term priority remains Web apps, it's thinking about getting a nearer-term boost from the hundreds of thousands of apps available for Android.

"To bridge this app gap between user expectations and the readiness of the ecosystem, we will explore implementing Android app compatibility," Beard said. That work will take place "within a framework that keeps our long-term focus on the Web," though, he said.

The email doesn't detail just how Android app compatibility could work or what kind of apps would be available. Beard said the effort is focused on support for "a few key apps."

Winning converts, recruiting allies

Beard worked as Mozilla's chief marketing officer in Firefox's early days before heading off for a stint as executive-in-residence at venture capital firm Greylock Partners. He returned as Mozilla CEO in 2014 to replace Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich, who was brought down by a gay-marriage firestorm. With Firefox OS, Beard is trying to return to a strategy that worked earlier for Mozilla, when it was trying to take on Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser.

"Firefox won converts by providing compelling end-user value: it was clean, simple, fast, secure, and open standards based," and it had features like tabbed browsing and pop-up blocking that people liked, according to Beard. Firefox OS likewise needs the right combination of features, apps, and pricing to attract converts despite "sophisticated competition from the most aggressive and largest technology companies in the world."

As Beard evidently recognizes, it won't be easy. Microsoft had let Internet Explorer languish, so Firefox had an easier time taking on its dominant position. iOS and Android, though, are top priorities at Apple and Google.

Beard also hopes to enlist more people to promote the operating system. Today, Firefox OS is available from carriers on a handful of phones from brands including Alcatel OneTouch, ZTE, and LG Electronics. App programmers also can buy the developer-specific Flame phone. Mozilla wants more people to use Firefox OS, though, and therefore will expand to more phones, Beard said.

"We will provide direct distribution of Ignite builds to early adopters with existing unlocked Android devices as part of our new development model to build community and influence," Beard said.

Community and influence will help, but Beard knows Firefox OS has been a tough project as Mozilla takes on "the most formidable players...in any industry."

Ultimately, Beard thinks it can be done, though: "Mozilla has faced this situation before, and won."

Text of Beard's email

Subject: Firefox OS in 2015 and Beyond

Hi all,

Firefox OS is an important part of our mobile strategy, in addition to Fennec and other initiatives. With Firefox OS we have the opportunity to demonstrate that the Web as an open, standards-based platform can provide a competitive alternative to proprietary, single-vendor platforms. This is core to who we are, and critical to the future of a healthy mobile ecosystem. By promoting choice and innovation in mobile we can help to build the Internet as a global public resource that's open and accessible to all.

By building an OS we can "own" a platform and ensure that a free, open mobile platform always exists. This is important as it means that not only can we create a wedge in the market to keep it open, we don't have the risk of Google, Apple or others locking us out. It also provides us a way to propose and test new Web standards, with real content and workloads.

Where are we?

Over the last three years, we have moved mountains to create interest in the commercial ecosystem (e.g. strategic partnerships with Qualcomm, Telefonica, and more) that is critical for our work to succeed. We launched phones across a wide price range, from ultra-low-cost to high-end, in dozens of countries. And we delivered first and second generation evolutions of Firefox OS as we rapidly iterated from prototype to product. We've proven that the core of web technology can be a strong, viable platform for mobile.

This was an immense accomplishment, only possible through the herculean efforts of Mozillians (i.e. staff and volunteers) around the world, and provides us with a good foundation on which to build.

Now it is time to take the next step. We will use this foundation to build products with partners that help people take control of and explore the full potential of their online lives, while empowering people with technology, know-how and opportunity to advance the Open Web. That will require bringing more of Mozilla and the Open Web to consumers than just the Web technologies upon which our products are built.

We will seek out opportunities that align with our relentless pursuit of the Mozilla mission, our strategy of building great products and empowering people, and the impact we aim to have on the world. And we will say "no" to opportunities, even if they make good business sense, if they do not further our mission.

Historical Parallels

The first few years of Firefox browser development weren't even on Firefox: they were on Gecko, an all-new modern layout engine and browser infrastructure at the time. Today, with Firefox OS, we have succeeded in developing an all-new modern smartphone OS infrastructure. We have created the raw material that can be used by ourselves and others to create products and services that end users will want. This represents a significant investment over several years, and enables us to penetrate the mobile market.

Just as a strategy of offering the lowest price browser would have failed, especially against Microsoft, the strategy of merely offering the lowest price smartphone won't succeed. It's not possible for a small vendor to compete only on price with an army of titans. It's always cheaper to order things by the million than by the thousand.

Firefox won converts by providing compelling end-user value: it was clean, simple, fast, secure and open standards based and offered innovations (e.g. tabbed browsing, pop-up blocking, etc.) that advanced the power of the online experience while at the same time reducing some of its annoyance. Likewise, for Firefox OS to win converts, it needs to offer compelling advantages to users (i.e. the right combination of product features, desired apps, pricing, etc.) that will drive people to seek out our products, especially in the face of sophisticated competition from the most aggressive and largest technology companies in the world.

And in the same way that Firefox advanced the Mozilla mission by helping secure an open Internet for everyone, Firefox OS must also advance the Mozilla mission.

The Next Phase: Ignite Initiative

We will consolidate all of our development efforts (including previous v2 feature work, v3 platform work, IoT explorations, Lightsaber, and more) around a new core development initiative. Our intent is to focus our time and energy on fully unlocking our full product potential and mission alignment.

The Ignite initiative will focus on building a unified product experience and developer platform that exemplifies our values and the best of the Web. We will build the ultimate phone experience for the hundreds of millions of people who love Firefox, who care about having a secure, trusted, independent alternative that is hackable, customizable and powerful as an open platform for innovation.

Like we did with Firefox on the desktop, we will build this core product experience ensuring that it is clean, modern and easy to use, and yet powerful through its extensibility, clever design and features that put users in control of their experience. We will enable the mobile equivalent of "View Source", revamp our security model to expose more of the new mobile Web APIs to developers and enable an extension mechanism to add to the user interface and phone capabilities.

This will be the phone that you want to use, and will use every day. We will activate our full community to participate in building this mobile experience, and use it as the basis for delivering the next generation of Firefox OS devices to the world, from the first time smartphone buyer to the technically sophisticated early adopter over time.

We will provide direct distribution of Ignite builds to early adopters with existing unlocked Android devices, as part of our new development model to build community and influence. And we will resource dedicated product development and release teams to build products based upon the Ignite core to address specific market opportunities (e.g. entry-level smartphones, smart TVs, etc.) that we will then distribute through our partners.

To accomplish this, we will embrace a new set of Strategic Design Principles:

1) We will build phones and connected devices that people want to buy because of the experience, not simply the price.

2) We will focus on depth first vs. breadth first. Our goal will be to on achieve real meaningful success and significant traction within our target market segments. We won't allow ourselves to be distracted, and we won't expand to new segments until significant traction is demonstrated. (It's important that we establish a beachhead to build from, and that we're following through all the way from delivering the initial product to achieving real market success and end-user delight and advocacy.)

3) We will build products that feel like Mozilla. We must define, build and own the product experience to ensure it delivers upon our brand promise and principles. This is critical to ensure that we're building product expertise and that we're able to deliver ever more value to our end-users and activate other distribution partnerships to reach even more people.

4) We will deliver compelling content and app experiences that exceed consumer expectations. We will continue to invest in Web platform capabilities and programs to incentivize developers to build for the Web. And to bridge this app gap between user expectations and the readiness of the ecosystem, we will explore implementing Android app compatibility, within a framework that keeps our long-term focus on the Web as the platform across desktop, mobile and connected devices. This mirrors our earlier strategy with Firefox in the face of Internet Explorer market dominance, and we believe this is a necessary step to the web flourishing as a mobile ecosystem.

5) We will ensure that when you buy a Firefox OS-powered phone you're joining our global community. Empowering people with technology, know-how and opportunity is key to our success, and we must provide product experiences that invite users into our community from enabling people to hack and customize their phone experience to providing local engagement for support, education and more.

6) We will ensure that the products we build are timely, technically excellent and high quality. In order for our products to be great and loved by people they be available when and where they expect them, and they must meet or exceed their expectations in terms of performance and reliability, at all price points. We must aim to build products that we're proud of.

These principles come out of discussions with many of you and the learnings from the v3 iteration process, as well as our understanding of the industry. We want to spend some time reviewing these together and then declare them part of our official working plan. We can use these to align our strategy and approach with the Mozilla mission and to evaluate product opportunities.

What's next?

We will immediately begin work on consolidating our product and development roadmap as part of the Ignite initiative. This includes the already identified v3 architecture and platform work (e.g. service workers, revamped updates, etc.) with an initial focus on performance and stability.

We will put our best foot forward. As with any new major product or platform, the 2.0 version runs circles around the 1.0 version. We will focus on technologies and business decisions to aggressively move our OEM partners to use our latest releases only.

We will ship v2.2 and all pending work to deliver entry-level smartphones with our key partners. Additional appropriate feature work will be rolled into Ignite. v2.2 will be maintained as a long-lived branch with security and stability updates only.

We will reconsider the ultra-low-cost smartphone program (e.g. Tarako) We have not seen sufficient traction for a $25 phone, and we will not pursue all parts of the program. We will focus on efforts that provide a better user experience, rather than focusing on cost alone.

We will eat our own fox food. It's incredibly hard to build, make decisions and provide feedback on a product you don't use every day. A key part of the Ignite program will be empowering all Mozillians to actively participate in its development. While we won't be able to live and breathe on each and every target device for our core product and technology, we can on phones that are powerful enough for each of us to make our primary phone.

We will dive deep into fully exploring the feature phone opportunity identified earlier this year. We need to identify a Mozilla product that we are proud of that fulfills our strategic design principles and that carriers are eager to ship.

We will continue explore IoT and connected device opportunities. We need to fully explore the opportunity to deliver product and platform value to end-users and developers in these emerging device categories.

We will aggressively invest in the Firefox OS opportunity. We will invest the necessary financial resources required to accomplish this new focused plan while ensuring we have clear line of sight to return on that investment, especially in terms of the Mozilla mission impact.

Onwards and Upwards

Changing the world is often glamorized. But at its heart, it's very hard work with an unpredictable path. I'm very aware of the stress all Mozillians, particularly those closely associated with Firefox OS, have endured the last few years. Anyone who thought it would be easy to take on, not only the three most formidable players in the tech industry, but in any industry, surely has learned otherwise.

But Mozilla has faced this situation before, and won. This is what we do: take on and triumph when pretty much everyone from competitors and pundits, to trolls and more think we're crazy.

Firefox OS is critical to ensure the Web remains the single greatest public resource the world has ever known. Please join me in the next phase of the fight.