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Mozilla backs away from mobile OS as Android looks invincible

When in a hole, stop digging

By Wireless Watch, 11 Dec 2015

If 2014 was a year of brave new mobile operating systems, challenging Android’s dominance with open platforms and modern cloud-oriented designs, 2016 looks set to be the year when their hopes die.

A week after Finnish startup Jolla slashed the staff working on its Sailfish mobile system, Mozilla has announced that it plans to stop selling smartphones running Firefox OS. And even Windows Phone scarcely deserves its title as the ‘third mobile OS’, given that its share is down to just 2.2 per cent, according to IDC.

All these platforms - and many others such as Samsung’s bada and Tizen, Ubuntu Mobile, Baidu Cloud OS, Alibaba Amos, and of course BlackBerry – have tried to eat into the Android/iOS near-duopoly. Whether old or new, the alternative platforms have pushed their unique differentiators (security for BlackBerry, a novel user interface for Windows Phone, HTML-based cloud functionality for Firefox).

They have sought to tap into the desire of carriers and OEMs to loosen the reliance on Google and assert control over their own user experiences. They have argued that in the diversifying world of mobile and embedded devices, no one OS can possibly support optimal user and developer experiences across smartphones, TVs, cars and PCs; and that Android is killing consumer choice. And they have insisted that the big two OSs were designed for a passing era of native apps, downloads and a ‘fat device’, not for the emerging world of streaming, cloud services and slimline user-side operating platforms.

But despite the logic and merit in most of these arguments, and the support of big name carriers and vendors, the impact on Android and iOS has been minimal – even in China, where the operators and homegrown web players have huge power and Google is weak. The latest forecasts from IDC are that iOS shipments will have grown in 2015 by 17.3 per cent, giving it 15.8 per cent share of the total, while Android’s will have grown at 9.5 per cent to gain 81.2 per cent share.

By contrast, Windows Phone’s share will have slid to 2.2 per cent and ‘others’ to just 0.8 per cent. By 2019, the researchers expect the respective shares to have shifted only fractionally (on smartphones at least – there may be better opportunities for new challengers on emerging connected devices which have not previously featured a full OS and need something rather different).

Mozilla backs away from smartphones

This depressing picture is causing the new mobile operating systems to drop like flies, even in China, where Baidu showed the way last year when it pulled back from its own Cloud OS to focus on its own implementations of Android. Now Mozilla is following suit, and Jolla’s Sailfish is apparently at death’s door, while there are serious question marks over why Microsoft is clinging on to Windows Phone.

This week Mozilla announced, at its developer event in Orlando, Mozlando, that it would stop designing smartphones. The organisation’s SVP of connected devices, Ari Jaaksi, said in a statement that Mozilla would "continue to experiment with the user experience across connected devices" but would "stop offering Firefox OS smartphones through carrier channels". He said this was partly because it had proved impossible to “offer the best user experience possible".

Firefox OS was built around on a web-based experience, rather than native apps, which helped it to work well on low cost handsets, but also relied on a shift from apps and downloads towards streaming and web services – a shift which has proved slower than many expected on mobile devices.

However, among the new Linux-based mobile platforms which hoped to provide an alternative to Android, Firefox was most strongly positioned. As of the end of last year, there were 14 smartphones running the OS, offered by 14 operators in 28 countries. Initially, the Firefox devices were sold by Alcatel, LG, ZTE, and Huawei and were aimed at consumers in Brazil, Colombia, Hungary, Mexico, Montenegro, Poland, Serbia, Spain, and Venezuela.

Some of the carriers launching them were big names, including Telefonica and Deutsche Telekom. Operators repeatedly search for operating systems which they can control, and which can make them less dependent on Google and Apple. The quest to build an operator-driven alternative power base has been a forlorn one, however, from the days of Java-based SavaJe to the failure of MNO attempts – even by the mighty China Mobile – to do without the iPhone.

So Firefox OS, like other smaller platforms such as Samsung bada and even Windows Phone, did not gain a significant share of the carriers’ portfolios.

"Firefox OS proved the flexibility of the web, scaling from low end smartphones all the way up to HD TVs," Jaaksi said in a statement to TechCrunch. "However, we weren't able to offer the best user experience possible and so we will stop offering Firefox OS smartphones through carrier channels."

"We are proud of the benefits Firefox OS added to the web platform and will continue to experiment with the user experience across connected devices," Jaaksi added. "We will build everything we do as a genuine open source project, focused on user experience first and build tools to enable the ecosystem to grow." ®

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