Mainstream customers need not apply, but programmers who like the openness of Mozilla's browser-based Firefox OS will soon get a chance to help make it a reality.
GeeksPhone's lower-end Keon, left, and higher-end Peak are designed for programmers wishing to improve Firefox OS, Mozilla's browser-based operating system.
A small Spanish start-up called GeeksPhone has started selling phones that let developers get a taste of Mozilla's new Firefox OS.
GeeksPhone announced two 3G phones for the browser-based operating system: the lower-end Keon and higher-end Peak. The phones, while geared for programmers rather than mainstream customers, make Mozilla's open-source mobile OS a lot more real, since programmers will be able to develop apps as well as debug and advance the underlying operating system.
Firefox OS is Mozilla's ambitious attempt to build an operating system that brings more openness to the walled gardens of Apple's iOS and Google's Android. Although the latter is an open-source project, it's run in secrecy by Google and its corporate allies, and is closely linked to Google's ecosystem of app distribution and online services. Apple's iOS is even more closely locked down, with proprietary source code and only Apple-approved apps on the App Store.
Walled gardens or not, iOS and Android have been very popular for phones and tablets, and it's not clear whether the mass market truly wants an alternative even if it shuns lock-in. And even if some customers do value the openness, it won't be easy for Firefox OS to gain a competitive foothold.
But the GeeksPhone models at least make it possible for Mozilla and its allies — Telefonica and Qualcomm, among others — to try.
However, it's not yet clear how much the phones will cost or when they'll ship. CNET has contacted GeeksPhone but had received no reply by the time of writing.
"This week, we are announcing our new Firefox OS developer preview phones because we believe that developers will help bring the power of the web to mobile," wrote Stormy Peters, director of websites and developer engagement at Mozilla, in a blog post.
The web indeed brings a taste of cross-platform programming nirvana to developers who are sick of re-crafting their apps for different operating systems. But although any new smartphone or computer these days has a browser, there are still differences among them. And performance issues remain a bugbear; after early enthusiasm, Facebook dissed web apps and went native for its mobile apps on Android and iOS.
According to its LinkedIn profile, GeeksPhone is based in Madrid, Spain, and has 10 or fewer employees. It got its start in 2009 when it launched an Android phone.
The Keon has a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S1 processor, 3.5-inch screen, 1580mAh battery and 3MP camera; the higher-end Peak has a 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor, 4.3-inch screen, 1800mAh battery and 8MP camera.
Both phones also have 4GB of ROM, 512MB of RAM, a microSD slot, 802.11n wireless networking, light and proximity sensors, GPS, an accelerometer and a camera flash.
To run those web apps, Firefox OS naturally uses the Gecko browser engine that's also the foundation of Firefox. Mozilla is adapting the engine with new interfaces to let web apps take advantage of all the hardware features. Firefox OS got its start with the project name Boot to Gecko, or B2G.
Using this browser-based approach poses some technical challenges, but it also means that a huge amount of services already work on the phone, at least in principle, simply by pointing the phone at a web page.
Mozilla and its allies are aiming the phone initially at developing markets where customers are upgrading to smartphones from lower-end feature phones. Telefonica believes that the Firefox OS phones will be much less expensive than iPhones.
Peters exhorted programmers to see the openness and create apps for Firefox OS. Her reasons:
Keep the web open: support the open web and help make sure the power of the web is available to everyone — even on mobile devices
Freedom: you're not locked in to a vendor-controlled ecosystem. You can distribute your app through the Firefox Marketplace, your own website, or any other store based on Mozilla's open app store technology.