With The Open, ZTE Aims To Get The Young And Adventurous Fired Up For Firefox OS

ZTE’s press conference yesterday didn’t really reveal anything we didn’t already know, but it at least gave us the opportunity to play with the Chinese OEM’s first Firefox OS-powered smartphone. The cost-conscious Open is apparently meant for “young people who are adventurers and want to try something new” (according to He Shiyou, head of ZTE’s Mobile Devices Division anyway), but how is it?

The Open’s 3.5-inch display is something of a mixed blessing here — it responds nicely to swipes and touch inputs, but its small size means that actions that require precision (say, banging out a text message) can be problematic if you have anything but the daintiest fingers. Color reproduction isn’t great and viewing angles are actually quite bad, but that’s to be expected out of such a price-conscious device.

On the plus side, the Open is actually rather pretty, in a pared-down minimalist sort of way. It’s a very round little thing, and the models on display here were swathed in a nice orange or blue soft-touch plastic (a not-so-subtle nod to Firefox’s emblem, methinks). A 3.2 megapixel fixed-focus camera rides high on the Open’s back, and image quality seemed to skew towards the underwhelming end of the quality spectrum.

To be quite frank, there really isn’t much to say about the hardware — like HP’s new Slate 7, it’s cheap and it works. But honestly, what else could you expect from a phone like this? If the images alone didn’t make it clear enough, the Open is a device meant to bust into emerging markets — it’s going launch first in Europe and Latin America starting this summer thanks to some help from wireless carrier Telefonica. There’s still no official word on price, but Mozilla engineering program manager Michael Treese told me that the bill of materials for ZTE’s Open comes out to “less than $100” so I wouldn’t worry about going broke after buying one.

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And of course, there’s Firefox OS. I’ll preface this next little bit by mentioning that the build I played with isn’t final just yet — it hasn’t undergone the final cleaning that comes with carrier testing. Things start off charmingly enough with a cute Firefox boot screen, and it isn’t long at all before users wind up on a lockscreen that’s easily dispatched with a single tap.

We’ve seen Firefox OS in action a few times over the past few months so the interface looks very familiar — a quick swipe on the homescreen brings up a slew of HTML5 apps, while a persistent set of icons for the phone dialer, messaging app, Firefox browser, and the camera. Poking around seemed fluid enough save for the occasional hiccup (which honestly may be more hardware than Firefox OS), and apps fired up without too much delay.

Speaking of apps, FFOS users have a decent little section of them to choose from at this stage — there are optimized versions of Facebook and Twitter, as well as HTML5 apps for Pulse, AirBnB, Soundcloud, and more. Firefox Marketplace plays home to “thousands” of apps, though Mozilla is quick to note that it’s but only one place for users to find content for their devices. Since the phone is meant for folks in emerging economies, Mozilla also baked in a service that provides real-time network and data traffic monitoring to help those people better manage their usage (and, by extension, their money).

All things considered, Firefox OS definitely has some potential. Does it still need some polish? A bit, yes. Does it have what it takes to give platforms like Android a run for its money in terms of functionality? In its current state, no, and that’s something Mozilla is quite candid about.

“We know there’s a certain parity gap,” Treese said of Firefox OS’ feature set. “We’re looking to close it within about a year.” Having ZTE — a pro at cobbling together inexpensive phones — is a smart move considering the markets Mozilla is trying to impact. With any luck, final review units will be available sooner rather than later, but this little guy could make a big splash if priced and marketed correctly.