Ina Fried

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Why Carriers Just Love Firefox OS

There’s a good reason why Mozilla was able to get more than a dozen carriers to line up behind its browser-based phone operating system.

First off, carriers love anything that threatens to lessen the power of Apple and Android. It’s why they always express hope and optimism for any new release of Windows or BlackBerry and have for years.

“Duopolies are not beneficial for any industry,” Telefonica CEO Cesar Alierta said onstage at Mozilla’s press conference on Sunday. Telefonica is betting very big on Firefox OS, bringing it to several countries this year and to all its markets by the end of next year.

Even with BlackBerry and Windows Phone, Telecom Italia CEO Franco Bernabè says there is enough opportunity for Firefox and even Tizen, a mobile version of Linux.

“I think there is room for all of them,” Bernabè said in a brief interview at the Mozilla event. “The only thing we don’t want is to have two monopolies dominating the market.”

But Firefox offers two additional benefits beyond just offering carriers a chance to knock Google and Apple down a peg.

The first of these is cost. The operating system, like Android, is free. But even more than that, it is designed to run well on low-end hardware where Android performs poorly or can’t run at all.

Secondly, Firefox is open. Carriers can do whatever they want, from running their own apps and services to branding and anything else.

That could give Firefox and Tizen a leg up on BlackBerry and Microsoft, Bernabè said. “In our opinion, who will prevail will be the open source platforms.”

There is still a huge challenge, though. Firefox OS actually has to run well. And that’s where the carrier’s dreams could end.

The list of companies that bet too early and too heavily on HTML is a long one that includes, most notably, Facebook, which has since reversed course and focused heavily on native work for iOS and Android.

Analysts say Firefox has lined up an impressive array of partners but still has a lot of work to do in order to deliver a product that will sell.

“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,” said Ovum analyst Tony Cripps. “What is clear from the Firefox OS demonstration handsets that we have seen was that they are still some way from being market ready, being both slow and buggy.”

Even low-cost smartphones have to work well, Cripps said, noting that there is increasing competition from Android as well as the latest generation of feature phones such as Nokia’s Asha touch line and Samsung’s Rex phones.

Meanwhile, the U.S. could prove an even tougher nut to crack. The home market is on Mozilla’s radar, but not the top priority, says CEO Gary Kovacs. The company announced Sprint as a partner, but didn’t give any details and Kovacs said the U.S. probably won’t see its first Firefox OS devices until 2014.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik