First Firefox OS phones arrive Tuesday for developers

Geeksphone begins selling two phones, the Keon and Peak, starting Tuesday. These lower-budget models are geared for programmers building Web apps for Mozilla's open-source OS.

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.
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Stephen Shankland
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The opening screen of Firefox OS running on a Geeksphone Keon.
The opening screen of Firefox OS running on a Geeksphone Keon. Stephen Shankland/CNET

A small Spanish company called Geeksphone will begin selling two smartphones on Tuesday that are geared for developers who want to build apps for Firefox OS -- or for that matter, to build Mozilla's open-source browser-based operating system itself.

As previewed earlier this year, Geeksphone has two models, the Keon at 110 euros including VAT ($143) and the Peak at 179 euros ($234) including VAT.

That's a notch cheaper than high-end unlocked smartphones you'll find, like the $574.99 HTC One, an Android phone that just went on sale. But the low price is part of the point of Firefox OS: Mozilla and a sizeable group of Firefox OS allies argue that their browser-based approach will let them get away with lower-end, cheaper hardware to make the phones affordable in developing markets such as Brazil.

Geeksphone Keon: A lower-end Firefox OS phone (pictures)

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Mainstream Firefox OS phones will come from ZTE, Alcatel, LG Electronics, Huawei, and likely in 2014, from Sony, too.

Both the Geeksphones models will come with a prerelease version of Firefox OS. Hardware specs are as follows:

• The Keon has a 1Ghz Qualcomm Cortex-A5 processor, 3.5-inch multitouch screen, tri-band UMTS/HSPA radio, 3-megapixel camera, GPS receiver, proximity sensor, accelerometer, 4GB of storage, 512 MB RAM, and 1580 mAh battery.

• The Peak has a 1.2 GHz dual-core Qualcomm 8225 processor, 512MB of RAM, 4GB of storage, 4.3-inch multitouch qHD IPS screen, 8-megapixel back-facing camera and 2-megapixel front-facing camera, GPS receiver, proximity sensor, accelerometer, tri-band UMTS/HSPA radio, and 1800mAh battery.

A mobile foothold
For Mozilla, a lot rides on the Keon and Peak. They're a big step in its plan to try to gain a foothold in the mobile technology market that so far has eluded the nonprofit organization.

Mozilla has a version of Firefox for Android, but it's not widely used, and it's essentially barred from even trying to bring its own browser engine to Windows Phone, Windows RT, and iOS.

Thus, Mozilla hopes its own operating system will catch on, with a boost from some big-name carriers, and help it pursue its agenda of openness.

Even though consumer-oriented Firefox OS phones won't arrive until some months later, when Telefonica and other carriers bring them to market, these developer phones will be how programmers get their first crack at Firefox OS on real hardware. It's been possible to develop for the phones using an emulator, but that's not the real thing when it comes to issues such as touch-screen response and tilt sensitivity.

In principle, Firefox OS has a big head start when compared to other mobile operating systems such as iOS, Windows Phone 7, and Android. Those operating systems all needed their own software before they were useful to consumers; iOS launched with nothing but what Apple supplied, and Android wasn't much better.

Geeksphone Peak, a high-end Firefox OS phone (pictures)

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Firefox OS, though, runs Web apps -- those made from the same programming HTML, CSS, and JavaScript ingredients as Web pages. The mobile sites already on the Web are the Web apps that Firefox OS phones run.

Nonetheless, plenty of mobile developers are aiming their efforts at Android and iOS apps, not mobile-capable Web apps. Thus, Mozilla needs to ignite programmer enthusiasm, and the Geeksphone models are a part of that plan.

Ultimately, the nonprofit organization wants to undermine the walled gardens that are spreading across the technology world -- fully or partially closed ecosystems such as the Apple App Store and Google Play.

Mozilla expects to see Firefox OS devices in the United States in 2014.

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