Bonnie Cha

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Mozilla Makes a Mobile Web Browser Feel Like a Smartphone

A recent report by IHS predicted that half of all mobile phones will be smartphones by 2013. But existing smartphones are expensive. Mozilla and Telefónica want to change that.

Today at Mozilla’s San Francisco office, the partners previewed devices running Firefox OS, which they plan to sell in Brazil early next year. Firefox OS is a Web-based platform where all the features and apps are created using the HTML5 Web standard.

Firefox OS is basically a mobile browser, so apps that run within it are not tied to a particular operating system, like iOS, Android or Windows Phone. One advantage for buyers may be more flexibility about switching to a new phone because their apps and content won’t be locked onto a proprietary platform.

The goal of Firefox OS isn’t to compete with high-end devices, but to offer entry- to mid-level smartphones at feature phone prices. Mozilla demoed some of the OS features on a developer phone by ZTE, and it definitely shows promise.

The user interface is simple and reminiscent of Android in some places and acts very much like some of the entry-level smartphones available today. Mozilla said it’s working to make the performance as fast as possible, and we watched as applications, such as the phone dialer and camera, launched within seconds. We also downloaded a game from the Firefox OS Marketplace, and while it was a simple game, performance looked smooth.

Firefox OS will launch with about 15 core applications, including email, SMS, calendar, Firefox browser (yes, Firefox on Firefox) and camera. Like other smartphones, each app features an icon on the home screen for quick access. Functions such as pinch-to-zoom and photo editing options are also onboard.

Despite being a Web-based OS, you will still be able to access some apps even if you don’t have a network connection, as all the basic programs will be cached, according to Chris Lee, product manager of Firefox OS.

However, don’t expect to find many of the mobile-specific apps you might be familiar with from existing smartphones, until the developers who make them create Web versions.

The first Firefox OS smartphones are expected to hit the market in early 2013 through Telefónica, which offers service in 18 countries in Latin America and Europe. Other partners who have signed on include Sprint, Deutsche Telekom, Smart and Telecom Italia; hardware partners include TCL, ZTE and Qualcomm.

Mozilla’s broader goal is to make the Web a viable mobile platform. It is working to standardize some 40 APIs around various phone operations so that Web apps will work the same across different phones. Some simple ones, like battery levels and vibration, are already complete, but many more around functions like dialing and SMS are still being hashed out.

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— Gitesh Pandya of comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”