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MWC: Mozilla gets kudos for Firefox OS momentum

One theme emerging strongly at MWC and in the tech world in general, is what I’m going to call the ‘surveillance reaction’. It’s been kicked off by the NSA revelations, but was already lying latent in users’ distrust of personal data collection by the likes of Facebook and Google.

WhatsApp’s success was at least partly due to the fact that it didn’t target ads and made a feature of it, but right across MWC there’s evidence that if you can wrap a privacy and security story around your product, service or general approach, or even just a demonstrate a greater degree of openness, then you’re in a good spot.

Take Firefox OS. It held a press conference at MWC on Sunday to mark the progress of its Web based smartphone platform. It prominently styles itself as a “mission-based organisation dedicated to keeping the power of the Web in people’s hands.”

On its earlier outings, a year ago, I’m sure I got the impression that Firefox OS was at least partially about returning some of the economic power snatched by Google and Apple back to the telcos. Instead of a native operating system linked tightly to a download store, the Firefox OS smartphone would run an open system, with Web apps under HTML5. The approach would also mean lighter processing demands and much cheaper entry-level devices that could be developed for emerging and developing markets, filling the niche currently occupied by the feature-phones.

The concept was announced two years ago at MWC to a luke-warm response, but a year later things had warmed up with the first Firefox OS build and a slew of big operators indicating support, including China Unicom, DT, KDDI, Korea Telecom, Telecom Italia and Telefonica.

Still, the jury was out. Was there really room in the market for another OS, and if there was would it be Web-based or another native?

This year Firefox appears to have beaten expectations again.

Its headline-grabber was its push towards the sunlit uplands of the $25 smartphone, with Spreadtrum announcing the first chipset to support such a beast - the SC6821. Spreadtrum also announced WCDMA and EDGE turnkey reference designs.

There was lots of momentum to talk about. Mozilla claims that since MWC 2013, Firefox OS devices have gone on sale in 15 markets with four global operators and handsets from three manufacturers. The acitivity continues with lots more promised for 2014 with more handsets and an expanding roster of ecosystem partners.

At the press conference Mozilla announced the introduction of seven new Firefox OS devices and flagged up Telefónica’s - perhaps the leading telco supporter of Firefox OS - plans to build on the list of countries where it’s selling Firefox OS phones to include Argentina,Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ecuador, Germany, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama.

Mozilla says Deutsche Telekom will also add four new markets: Croatia, the Czech Republic, Macedonia and Montenegro. And it says that Telkomsel and Indosat have joined the list of 21 key operators supporting Firefox OS.

Alcatel-Lucent and ZTE both showed off upgraded Firefox smartphones and, new to Firefox OS, Huawei, showed off its first, the Y300.

The OS is also expanding sideways into new ‘form factors’ such as tablets - Alcatel-Lucent showed a prototype of a planned new tablet, the One Touch Fire 7; and televisions, with Panasonic announcing a partnership with Mozilla on next-generation smart TVs.

So enough progress for a confirmed seat at the mobile OS table? Researchers IDC think so, predicting Firefox OS volumes will grow by a factor of six times in the smartphone category alone.

Ovum also declares itself a convert: “Ovum was somewhat skeptical of the chances for Firefox OS at the start of 2013,” says Nick Dillon, senior analyst at Ovum. “But it is hard not to be impressed by the progress it has made over the last 12 months... Although the company is yet to announce any sales figures, it has revealed that there have been 425,000 unique visitors to the Firefox OS Marketplace since July 2013. This demonstrates at least a promising level of interest from consumers, and certainly more than the other alternative OSs can currently claim.”

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