You've heard it threatened for more than a year, and now it's here—the first Firefox OS-based "smartphone" will be released on Tuesday in Spain. The ZTE Open will be priced at €69 (roughly US$90), and that includes €30 (roughly $39) in pre-paid credit. Is this something Google and Apple should be concerned about? Yes and no, in that order.
The Firefox OS-Powered ZTE Open
Let's start with the device. This is the lowest end of the low end. We put smartphone in quotes above not to be snarky jerks (though we know how to do that, too), but because the ZTE Open is far more of a vaguely "Internet connected device" than it is a smartphone.
Mozilla's Firefox OS smartphone project uses the open source browser as a mobile operating system. There's no app download store, and everything the user does is done through the browser.
The device does come with a photo gallery app, though CNet noted that it's limited, and users can use "dynamic search" to look for apps on the Web. Fun, right?
On the hardware side, the ZTE Open is just above a feature phone, if that. It has a 3.5-inch 480 x 320 pixel display, a single core processor (unspecified), and Bluetooth 2.1. On the sensor side, it has an accelerometer and an ambient light sensor, and it does GPS through assisted GPS. For Wi-Fi, it supports 802.11b/g/n. It has 256MB of RAM and 512MB of storage (augmentable through a memory card).
It measures 114mm (4.48-inches) × 62mm (2.44-inches) × 12.5mm (0.49-inches). That compares to the iPhone at 123.8mm (4.87-inches) x 58.6mm (2.31-inches) x 7.6mm (0.3-inches). The Galaxy S4 measures 136.6mm (5.38-inches) x 70.6mm (2.78-inches) x 8.6mm (0.34-inches).
Apple & Oranges
None of which is going to be even vaguely usable for iPhone owners and owners of high-end Android devices. The display is a joke, the processor uncapable (to coin a word), and the memory and storage nonexistent.
iPhone and high-end Android device fans aren't the target market, however, and this is central to the point. The ZTE Open is aimed at the low end of the market still using feature phones, including users who are intimidated by the capabilities of the Galaxy S4 and iPhone.
No, we're being so fair there, we're being unfair. The ZTE Open is aimed at people who would currently buy a low end Android device because it's cheap cheap cheap. The iPhone market isn't a consideration for this first Firefox OS device.
As such, it will be used as a feature phone and little else, the same as the cheap Android devices that dominate Android sales today.
That's why Google should be tense about this thing—at least a little. Low-end Android devices might not get much use as smartphones, but Google does still get to take user data such as location services information and add to the user profiles that are the company's product. That won't be the case for Firefox OS devices.
In other words, because Apple doesn't play at the low end, devices like the ZTE Open and other Firefox OS devices that will be coming out soon will be taking share from feature phones and Android, not iPhone.
The question, however, will be how usable customers find these devices when it comes to making phone calls and texting. If they work and the browser-based experience is as seamless as a low-end Android device, Firefox OS will do well, especially in emerging markets.
Carriers have long been known to be tense about losing control of the customer experience with smartphones. With Firefox OS, they may see an opportunity to reinsert themselves into that experience. If so, they will be putting a lot of resources into new Firefox OS and Linux-based Tizen, at least until they prove to be a dud.
In the end, we suspect that will be the case. Google has the resources to continually make Android more compelling, even at the low end, and as advances in technology and manufacturing continue, there will be less and less and less room to compete on price.
It won't be too long before devices with a $50 unsubsidized retail price will have the capabilities of an iPhone 4 or a Galaxy S3. While the high end fight between Google and Apple will be out of this world, with entry-level devices on the low end, Google has the advantage over Firefox OS or Tizen.
It will be interesting see what happens.
Thanks to TMO member BurmaYank for the heads up on the ZTE Open.