BARCELONA: Mozilla kicked off Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2013 by finally giving journalists the hands-on time they've been clamouring for with its Firefox OS.
The OS is designed to save the world of mobile internet from the tyranny of Apple and Google, who Mozilla claims currently have an unfair duopoly on the space.
Mozilla claims Firefox OS will change this by creating a new set of open HTML5 standards for app developers that will enable them to cut ties with the Apple App Store and Google Play marketplaces and sell and develop apps on their own terms.
In attendance at the MWC Mozilla press conference V3 wrestled past the hordes and got some hands-on time with the OS, running on ZTE's Open smartphone.
Testing the OS on the ZTE Open, we were impressed how user friendly Firefox OS was. The platform features a user interface (UI) that looks a little like a cross between Meego, Symbian and iOS.
On the ZTE Open, app shortcuts were displayed in a grid format that was surprisingly free of dynamic widgets.
The UI looks a little like iOS in that it lacks a separate "app" button or menu. Instead, any apps installed on the device are automatically displayed on the main menu.
This meant that Firefox OS looks more static than the UI seen on many Android devices, which with additions like Samsung's TouchWiz skin are infested with automatically updating widgets.
On the upside, this makes Firefox OS less visually confusing and simple to understand.
Lining the bottom of the display are shortcuts linking to the phone's call, messaging, Firefox web browser and camera.
Getting in and out of apps is also fairly intuitive, with the Open handset featuring a capacitive home button, marked with a circle icon, that brings you back to the main app screen when pushed.
HTML 5 apps
The main selling point of the Firefox OS is that it is entirely based around HTML5 for app development.
Firefox claims that the OS will offer developers a set of HTML5 APIs that will allow the OS to run any HTML5 application. This means that developers will be able release and sell their services for Firefox OS outside of the official Firefox Marketplace.
This is designed to increase interest in the OS by making it as easy and open as possible for developers to create and sell their wares on the platform.
Mozilla claimed the move has already sparked a great deal of developer interest in the Firefox OS, and that numerous big-name developers have already begun coding products for the platform.
On the ZTE Open, we spotted client apps for Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, SoundCloud and MTV. Even better, we got to have a quick look at the OS Maps and camera apps.
Firefox Maps app is powered by Nokia Here. This is a massive flip for Mozilla, as the service delivers great up-to-date maps and is far superior to Apple and Microsoft's equivalent services.
Our only qualm with the service was that it took a while to launch on the Open, though this could be due to the dodgy Wi-Fi signal on the handset we were using.
Flies in the ointment
Sadly, we did notice the odd bug in the OS. Navigating through the menu windows, the OS often seemed to slow to a crawl, and the apps we tried would, on occasion, stall or take a moment longer to load than we'd have liked.
However, this could be because the OS is still a work in progress, or down to the low-end hardware used in the Open, which is designed to be as affordable as possible.
This would also explain why Mozilla refused to let us take a video of the OS and practically snatched the device out of our hands the moment we began to see some performance issues.
The Firefox OS is initially going to target emerging markets like China, Brazil and India, with a set of ultra affordable handsets from ZTE, Huawei, Alcatel and LG.
The platform has already garnered significant interest from carriers, with 17 key operators including América Móvil, China Unicom, Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Hutchison Three Group, KDDI, KT, MegaFon, Qtel, SingTel, Smart,Sprint, Telecom Italia Group, Telefónica, Telenor, TMN and VimpelCom confirming they will carry Firefox OS devices come its launch later this year.
For this reason, while we did discover the odd bug during our hands on, we are cautiously optimistic it will be able to carve its own space in the ever competitive smartphone arena.
This is because Mozilla deserves recognition of what is trying to do with its open web standards move in Firefox OS, and we suspect many developers sympathise with their cause.
However, we doubt it will achieve its goal of dethroning Apple and Google any time soon, at least not in developed countries.
Here's hoping the bugs get fixed in time for Firefox OS' release, set for sometime in the summer this year.
25 Feb 2013