Firefox OS makes big splash at MWC coming-out party

The first commercial build of Mozilla’s HTML5-centric Firefox OS was given a spectacular debut in Barcelona ahead of Mobile World Congress 2013, with the announcement of 18 mobile operator partners, nine launch markets, and initial device commitments from Alcatel One Touch, LG, and ZTE, with Huawei to follow. All will be powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chipset.

Firefox OS has achieved something that no device software platform has previously managed – translating an industry talking shop into a huge commitment from both carriers and hardware vendors at its commercial launch.

Neither Android nor Symbian – the closest benchmarks in terms of broad industry sponsorship that we’ve previously seen – have rallied the level of support that Firefox OS has achieved so early in its development.

That is a huge achievement for what, in fairness, has looked like an underdog among the plethora of alternative software platforms currently vying to power the so-called “third ecosystem”. Windows Phone, BlackBerry 10, and Tizen all look like better bets on the surface. As such, the Mozilla Foundation and its early sponsors, especially Telefonica, deserve considerable credit.

It is tempting to think that the platform’s perceived neutrality, especially with regard to the ambitions and needs of mobile operators, has provided a clear motivation for such widespread support.

But does that mean that Firefox OS is truly fit for purpose? The real acid test for Firefox OS and its long-term prospects is the quality of the software itself and the user and developer experiences that it fosters. However, it will be difficult to say whether it meets those needs sufficiently until we have seen retail devices. What is clear from the Firefox OS pre-release demonstration handsets that we have seen was that they are still some way from being market ready, being both slow and buggy.

These issues must be overcome before Firefox OS devices find their way into consumers’ hands. Even low-cost smartphones – the primary target market for Firefox OS – can’t afford to hide behind price as a justification for poor performance. This is especially true at a time when upgraded feature phones, such as Nokia’s Asha Touch and Samsung’s Rex ranges, are gradually eating into the low-end Android market.