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Specs Do Matter: Why I’m Worried About Firefox OS

by Stephen Schenck on March 6, 2013 8:00 PM

Man, have I ever got a bad feeling about Firefox OS hardware. I’ve been in this game long enough to know not to be blinded by specs, and appreciate what a difference the platform can make; just look at Windows Phone, which has done admirably well with hardware that’s a solid generation behind Android. I can also appreciate that Firefox OS is looking to launch in markets where cost is going to be a big deal, and that’s more true than ever when we’re talking about a largely unknown, unproven platform. Still, I am all sorts of concerned with the kind of hardware we’ve been seeing, and worry that Mozilla may have placed the bar just a little too low.

Hardware

It all started off with so much potential, upon the announcement of a pair of developer models from GeeksPhone. We had the lower-end Keon, with its single-core Snapdragon S1 and 3.5-inch HVGA display, alongside the more robust Peak, featuring a 1.2GHz dual-core S4 and packing a 4.3-inch qHD screen. While neither were anything close to what I’d call high-end, I liked seeing both a modest option as well as a more powerful one, giving developers with the extra cash the chance to try out the platform on some more capable hardware.

But then… these MWC Firefox OS models… yeesh. First we saw the specs for the ZTE Open leak, and they managed to come up short of even the Keon, dropping the processor speed to 800MHz and slashing RAM down to 256MB.

Shortly thereafter, details for the Alcatel One Touch Fire were revealed, and while it turned out to be a smidge faster than the ZTE Open, we were still in the same low-res, low-memory boat.

OK, so maybe the first wave of Firefox OS phones will be a bit rubbish; if they’re priced competitively enough and manage to sell in decent numbers, we could always see better phones later, right? Something a little more Peak-y?

Before I could even start getting my hopes up, Mozilla released its official specs for Firefox OS certification. How foolish of me to think that we were already at the bottom of the barrel, when Mozilla goes and grants its blessing to hardware with QVGA screens. Ugh.

Sure, manufacturers are free to make more powerful handsets, like Geeksphone is doing, but when the platform is being launched as this super-budget OS for emerging markets, I worry that the race isn’t going to push upwards, towards better and better models that manage to give you more for your money, but drive itself downwards, hugging the bottom of that spec floor with manufacturers trying to outdo each other on cost alone.

Software

This whole HTML5-apps, web-based-ecosystem take on a platform is a little unusual, and may end up well suited to the lower-end hardware we’re looking at, but I wonder if the apps might just serve to hold the evolution of the OS back.

With the landscape dominated by these low-end handsets at launch, that’s the hardware level that’s going to be developed for. From the sound of things, these emerging markets are going to remain a focus of the platform’s future, so we can likely count on a substantial number of Firefox OS users being stuck with this limited hardware.

I fear that developers aren’t going to take the capabilities of higher-end Firefox OS models into consideration as they craft their HTML5 apps, and instead focus on how well things work on the slow, low-res hardware. That could easily create a catch-22, where there aren’t any apps that really show-off higher-end hardware, and there isn’t any higher-end hardware because all apps run just fine on cheaper gear.

Now, none of this is to say that Firefox OS, and these launch devices, won’t be success stories – you can make a lot of money selling phones like these. My concern is that by not getting things started with a proper cross section of hardware options, Mozilla could be limiting its platform’s growth right out of the gate.

Better hardware means a lot of things, and beyond simple performance, it means having options. I loves me a good upstart, so it’s disappointing to see a new smartphone OS arrive with its options already so seemingly limited.

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