Firefox OS can't compete with Android and iOS, and that's okay
The smartphone industry is beginning to look a lot like "The Lion King." Two key players -- Android and iOS, in this case -- are fighting to control a kingdom while a pack of rabid competitors, like BlackBerry and Windows Phone, are simply fighting to survive. (It's up to you to decide which company represents Simba and which embodies Scar, his murderous uncle.) Now Mozilla is hoping to join the hyenas... er, upstarts, and fight for the right to the royal family's scraps through Firefox OS, its Web-based operating system. Or, at least, that's how it would appear.
Kantar reported yesterday that Android accounted for 52 percent of smartphone sales in the US during the three-month period ending in May; iOS represented 41.9 percent, leaving just 7 percent of the market for the hyenas to fight over. If that's all Firefox OS, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry are able to consume they'll likely starve. And Mozilla is just fine with that.
Mozilla, like the hyenas of this long-extended metaphor, is growing used to being an also-ran. The company's Firefox browser accounted for just 27.7 percent of the browser market in May, according to W3Schools. Google's Chrome browser, by comparison, holds 52.9 percent. It overcame Firefox in March 2012 and hasn't ceded control of the market since. The company stopped developing Thunderbird, its cross-platform email application, in July 2012. (Thunderbird still receives security updates but has been otherwise abandoned.) It doesn't expect Firefox OS to suddenly leap to third place or -- and this would be one hell of a stretch -- displace iOS or Android at the top.
Firefox OS has been developed to improve the mobile Web. Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich said during the announcement of the first FirefoxOS-powered devices' retail launch that he doesn't believe anyone, including BlackBerry or Microsoft, has the market share to develop a viable "third platform." Anyone intending to compete with iOS or Android ends up relying on Web technologies, he said, and that depends on the improvement of open standards. Companies like Apple and Google try to create "walled gardens" to lock their customers into their ecosystems; Mozilla is trying to create an open field in which Web developers can frolic without fear of being tied to one operating system or another.
Mozilla has been working on these standards, including several that allow Web-based applications to access your location, or utilize your camera, or display the level to which your smartphone's battery is charged. The company pushed for these standards to be embraced by the W3C, the standards maker that decides on which Web technologies should be made an official aspect of HTML.
"The Web is a rising tide around the world that everyone benefits from, and Firefox OS is just an instance of this category of Web-based device," Eich said. Because of Mozilla's mission to further Web standards, he added later, the company does "not want anything to be unique to [Firefox OS.]" Applications developed for the operating system should run on any other device, whether it's built upon the Android, iOS, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, or Firefox OS platform. Other operating system -makers are constantly trying to improve their offerings and encourage developers to build applications for the platform. Mozilla is trying to improve every platform and encourage developers to build applications that can be run on any device with a Web browser.
Firefox OS, like the browser it's named after, is simply a vehicle for Mozilla's mission. It might attract attention in emerging markets, where it has the benefit of being cheaper than its competitors, which the Guardian argues is the operating system's main selling point for consumers. Perhaps it could grow to a respectable size in the US as well by offering an open platform that is easier to develop for than BlackBerry or Windows Phone. But in the end it doesn't particularly matter how many smartphones Mozilla's partners sell, or how many people develop products for mobile devices specifically because of the operating system. Mozilla wants to improve the Web. Full stop.
BlackBerry and Windows Phone are in a constant struggle for the scraps left behind by iOS and Android. Firefox OS is fighting simply to make sure the entire kingdom is improved, no matter who ends up being the king.