Firefox OS Hits The Ground Running With Phones, Marketplace For Apps And 18 Carriers Signed Up For Open Web Efforts

Firefox OS, the new, HTML5-friendly mobile OS from Mozilla, is today taking a big step forward in its strategy to become a viable third player in the smartphone landscape currently dominated by Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS. Mozilla is announcing that 18 carriers have now committed to its Open Web HTML5 device push; the launch of the Firefox Marketplace app store to aggregate content for the platform; and some of the first low-cost handsets coming out of its carrier partnerships that will be coming out this summer.

Telefonica — whose ZTE-made handset is pictured here — will sell its first Firefox-powered phones in Latin America and Spain; and Deutsche Telekom will debut its handsets in Poland before expanding to other markets in Eastern Europe. Other operators announcing handsets today include Latin American powerhouse America Movil (starting first in its home market of Mexico) and Norway’s Telenor, which has operations across Eastern Europe and Asia, including Malaysia, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The idea is that carriers may have a better opportunity in markets with lower overall smartphone penetration, and a customer base interested in low-cost handsets (versus premium devices like the iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy device). “In Latin America, 82% of the population does not have a smartphone today, so we have the potential to make the market in those developing economies,” said Matthew Key, CEO of Telefonica Digital, told TechCrunch. “They’re at a different stage of development.”

The Firefox Marketplace, meanwhile, has signed on a number of early partners: Zeptolab, maker of Cut the Rope; Disney Mobile Games; EA games; Facebook; MTV Brasil; Nokia’s mapping effort HERE; SoundCloud and Twitter will all appear in the marketplace with HTML5-based web apps optimized for Firefox OS handsets. Given that popular apps are a key part of attracting users to different devices, it’s essential that Mozilla shows at this early stage that it’s picking up key brands in that area.

The 18 new carriers announced today at a press conference at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona are Latin American giant América Móvil, China Unicom, Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Hutchison Three Group, Japan’s KDDI, Korea’s KT, Russian MegaFon, Qtel, SingTel, Smart, Sprint, Telecom Italia Group, Telefónica, Telenor, Telstra, Portugal’s TMN and Russia’s VimpelCom.

This is the first major update to Mozilla’s partner network since announcing an early list of seven (Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Smart, Sprint, Telecom Italia, Telefónica and Telenor) in July 2012, and it demonstrates that the group continues to gain ground with carriers looking for a viable third way in the smartphone market — ideally one that gives those carriers more say, and a bigger cut, in how services get deployed on new devices.

“The launch of the first smartphone in Europe with the new Firefox operating system is an important step on the way to more competition between the different ecosystems,” noted Rene Obermann, chairman of Deutsche Telekom, in a statement.

But despite the vote of confidence, it’s going to be a long, uphill battle to fight for smartphone market share in a world currently dominated by Android and iPhone. A report from Strategy Analytics estimates that Firefox OS will account for only 1% of smartphones shipped this year, with Android taking a 67% share.

“It’s no doubt that there’s going to be a long burn,” admitted Key at Telefonica. “This isn’t something that will be an instant hit on day one.” This is one reason why Telefonica is choosing to target four countries initially rather than its full footprint across 25. Those will only come “over a period of time,” he said.

The fact that Firefox OS is being used largely as a lever to target later smartphone adopters, who might be spending less on their handsets, will also put more pressure on Nokia, which has also been honing a low-cost device strategy in its Lumia line of Windows Phone handsets to compete with the likes of Huawei and ZTE, now making both low-cost Android and low-cost Firefox OS handsets.

The HTML5-based framework of Firefox OS, built on open Web standards, will mean that every aspect of the device — including even the phone dialler — is built as an HTML5 application. Firefox says that allows for faster performance compared to how HTML5 typically works on Android- or iOS-powered devices, where web apps have been often seen as inferior to native apps on those platforms.

It also gives carriers the chance to customize and localize those interfaces and services — including apps, and including the Firefox Marketplace — as they choose, a level of flexibility they cannot have with iOS or with Android (unless they decide to work on a forked version of the latter, which then cuts out access to the Google Play app store).

In the case of Deutsche Telekom, for example, the carrier says that it will be pre-loading “strategically relevant building blocks, such as those for security,” but it also adds that it is providing “a network operator’s perspective” on technical requirements for handset makers.

“Firefox OS brings the freedom and unbounded innovation of the open Web to mobile users everywhere,” said Gary Kovacs, CEO, Mozilla, in a statement. “With the support of our vibrant community and dedicated partners, our goal is to level the playing field and usher in an explosion of content and services that will meet the diverse needs of the next two billion people online.”

Although Deutsche Telekom’s biggest markets are in Germany and the U.S., as well as the UK, where it is a partner in the Everything Everywhere JV with France Telecom, these are not the markets that it will be targeting with its first Firefox OS devices — not initially, at least. Instead, its first device, the Alcatel One Touch Fire, will be launched this summer in Poland, and “further countries in Eastern Europe will follow in 2013,” the company says.

Similarly, Telefonica will be aiming its first Firefox OS handsets in three markets in Latin America — Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela — as well as Spain, a market that has shown to have a strong appetite when it comes to low-cost smartphones. Like DT, Telefonica will be rolling out the Alcatel One Touch, and added to that it will also offer devices from LG and ZTE.

We are live at the Firefox OS press conference in Barcelona and will update as we learn more.