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Making a risky call on phones

Date

Craig Gamble

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The Mozilla Firefox browser  logo.

The Mozilla Firefox browser logo.

I've long been a fan of Firefox, the web browser made by non-profit organisation Mozilla. It's fast - so fast it has just kicked Google's Chrome off the top of the speed list in tests run by Tom's Hardware (tomshardware.com) - and has useful free add-ons that make the web a friendlier place.

Mozilla itself has laudable aims. In its own words it's ''a global community, working together to keep the web open, public and accessible to all''. Now up to version 22, Firefox has benefited from the efforts of an enthusiastic group of volunteer coders, programmers and bug-squashers for many years since it launched in 2004. Now Mozilla has decided to employ this philosophy with mobile phones. Last week the company launched its first Firefox OS phone in Spain.

This is no state-of-the-art touch-based smartphone to rival the latest offerings from Samsung or Apple. The ZTE Open phone is not built to compete at that end of the market. What it is built to do is exploit the possibilities of the mobile web.

According to Mozilla chief operating officer Jay Sullivan: ''Firefox OS powers the first smartphones built entirely on web technologies and will stimulate an inspiring new wave of innovation for the web.''

In essence this means rather than employing a raft of apps that you download to your phone, Firefox OS uses web-based applications. When you tap on an icon on your ZTE, you connect to a mobile website, and the phone can keep all your details for those mobile sites. Early reports say this process works well enough, though not as quickly as a ''native'' app on your premium phone would.

But again, comparing the ZTE to those other phones isn't really the point.

Mozilla is worried the web is being cannibalised by the focus on smartphones and tablets. Developers are busy building applications for all those mobile devices rather than spending time on websites or mobile websites. All those great apps are sucking innovation away from the web into ''walled gardens'' on people's smartphones.

An example of this is HTML5, a technology Mozilla sees as vital in the future of web development. Some web companies have had bad experiences with HTML5, many caused by the fact connecting to a mobile website from a phone is slower and more clunky than using an app. Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook says relying on HTML5 was one of the company's biggest mistakes. Once demand picked up for mobile Facebook, there were many complaints about slow load times and sluggish controls.

However, Mozilla obviously believes HTML 5 will improve and hopes Firefox OS will be a catalyst.

It's telling, though, that the ZTE was launched in Spain, because the phone market there is much more focused on cheap and free phones. The Guardian's technology writer Charles Arthur sees it this way: ''we're now in a third age of smartphone buying. We've gone past the early adopters (perhaps 15 per cent of buyers), and the hump of cautious consumers (another 40-50 per cent). Now we're into the tail-end of first-time smartphone buyers, at least in Europe: the cheap customers.''

So although Mozilla hopes the ZTE and Firefox OS will reinvigorate the web and the mobile web, its success may depend on price.

Despite the focus on the top-end smartphones and the obsession with who is winning the race for that market - Android or Apple - it's largely all over bar the shouting. A range of cheaper smartphones will hit the market very soon, and they will likely have features that compare more favourably to more expensive smartphones than those on the ZTE. If rumours are to be believed, a cheap iPhone is only months away. A multitude of leaked photographs and technical specs point at a plastic iPhone that, nevertheless, is well designed and relatively speedy.

If Apple can make a cheap phone that still feels well made and does most of the things people expect of a smartphone, the ZTE's market might be taken away from it all too quickly.

gamblecr@gmail.com