Firefox OS Needs To Do Away With The Phones That Piss Off Users

Mozilla isn’t an unknown name in the tech world. Same company which makes Firefox browser. Mozilla sometime back in 2011 decided to step into smartphone market. Its journey started with Boot-to-Gecko project which later become Firefox OS. What was Mozilla’s purpose behind this when there are many other operating systems floating around and iOS and Android taking most of the market share?

Mozilla wanted to provide an OS which was based on open standards and respects user privacy. The OS is written in HTML5 and related technologies such as JS and CSS. The first phone running Firefox OS, ZTE Open, went live in July 2013 in Spain and was priced at $79. Later on, Mozilla decided to target feature phones segment with the phones around $25 price mark. Maybe $25 was a bit too ambitious. Its cheapest phones today cost around $35. But the question is, do these phones have what it takes to replace the feature phones? I try to find it out.

For this particular review I’ll take different route. Rather going structured way, I’ll talk about the phone and the OS in a more casual manner.

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Let’s talk about the phone first. The phone in this case is the Spice FX Mi-1. In Indian market it costs about $38 (INR 2,385). This is exactly the price bracket where we onced used to see only feature phones. So you can say Mozilla has chosen a right segment. How did they manage to make a phone so cheap? Simple. They used very basic hardware for it. It has its obvious consequences. At this point, I remember someone telling me about the similarities between junk food and cheap hardware. Not everything that is cheap is good. But does it hold true for this hardware? Well, it does.

The very first time I held the phone, I realized everything about this phone is ‘cheap’. Its exteriors are uninspiring at best. Plastic used for it would have suited more to a toy phone. But it’s thick so at least it’s not easily breakable. Maybe that’s what needed for its audience who would not be using it quite carefully. Front has a 3.5 inch LCD display with the resolution of 320×480 pixels. You’re not expecting HD screen anyways, right?

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I’ve got no problem with the display or resolution except for the fact that it didn’t fare well in terms of sunlight legibility. Its touch was erratic too. Many times, it’d fail to register the touch or mis-register. I got fed up in a day. This alone would be the first reason for me switch to traditional feature phones with keys. Front has thicker or should I say thickest bezel I’ve ever seen.

Spice Fire One Mi-Fx1 comes with dual SIM support and there’s a provision for microSD card too. Actually, without microSD card many features just won’t work. Oh yeah, and there’s a 1.3MP camera too WITH a LED flash. And heck, there’s a front cam too. Totally unexpected. Battery is 1400 mAh in capacity.

It’s powered (?) by a Spreadtrum 1GHz single-core processor. I was like, really? And there’s 128MBs of RAM to accompany it. Marketing materials say a lot of things about “performance” but it’d be better to not to fall for it. Let’s keep it straight and simple. Its performance sucked. It was sluggish. What else could you expect with this hardware? I still use my old SE Live with Walkman which has 1GHz of processor and 512MB of RAM, loaded with a custom ROM and it works just fine. It dates back to 2011 so Firefox OS phones should certainly be doing better in 2014. Actually, there are devices with better configurations like ZTE Open C which cost little above $90. For the same price you can get a fully functional, better and properly supported Android or Windows Phone handset.

I couldn’t use it for  more than a couple of days!

The 1.3MP camera is just, ummm, takes photos. There’s an LED flash but it’s a joke. It’s barely effective above 2 meters. There isn’t even any option to just use it as a flashlight.

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Now that we’re at it, let’s discuss phone’s OS. Firefox OS seems inspired from both iOS and Android. At least that’s what the arrangement says. Its aesthetics reminded me of Android Gingerbread.

There isn’t a concept of separate homescreens and app drawer, just like iOS. You get all apps on the homescreen along with central search on the first pane. There’s an app dock on the bottom which hosts four app icons. Like any other modern smartphone OS, there’s a pull down notification bar as well which also hosts toggles to some quick settings. You can’t create folder as per your wish. What it offers instead is ‘smart collections’. Smart collections are kind of folders automatically created by the OS and have apps which you’re most likely to use. There are different types of smart collections such as music.

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Its lockscreen has swipe to unlock approach and you can swipe left to launch camera directly. Apart from time and date, it also shows notifications but you can’t clear those off. Pull down notification bar also shows toggles along with new notifications. However, you can’t customize those toggles.

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Most apps in Firefox OS are the browser based ones with some handful exceptions. These apps load inside a browser frame. The browser here is Firefox browser. Most of the apps that load in the browser are as good as mobile versions of websites. I’d cite the examples of Facebook and Twitter apps; both of them are merely the bookmarks to their respective mobile sites. But in the case of Twitter and Facebook, you get mobile sites optimized for feature phones. As you can see in screenshot above, Firefox OS has card style task manager with a close button on the top corner which to close the apps.

In terms of overall performance, Firefox OS isn’t as smooth as I expected it to be. It’s hardware requirements are sure greater than what it touts. Browser has stutters more than often. Little research on Mozilla’s developer site shows that the developers has put a great amount of efforts into this OS. But an OS for such a low end hardware should have been similar to the now dead Symbian OS. Mozilla can learn a lot from it about keeping the OS optimized and still have apps and functions. Even Android is slowly catching up in terms of lighter footprint but it still needs at least dual core processor and 512MB RAM. Firefox has a long way to go.

No, I’m not writing off Firefox OS totally. It’s in the infant stage. But it’s taking a bit longer to come out of it and is also going off track. I haven’t heard of major development regarding the OS so the whole scenario doesn’t seem much promising.

Final Words:

I appreciate Mozilla’s efforts to put smartphone in everybody’s hands. Its intent to make a open web is good too but it’s not going to be an easy business with current direction. It seems that the company too has realized it. It’s evident with the recent launch of LG Fx0 which is a high-end phone to date to run Firefox OS. But provided Firefox OS’ overall scene, it looks like Chrome OS of smartphones. Chromebooks too pretend to be full laptops which they ain’t. Both of them have one thing common, they lack a solid ecosystem and vision too.

Hardware was a total let down as I said earlier. Even if Mozilla is dreaming to replace the feature phones with keypads, its phones need to be less annoying, frustrating and quick and durable too.

Android phones are already available under $35 price mark in the Indian market. Obviously, these phones are far better with the Android and its ecosystem. And they are better in terms of hardware too. Look at Karbonn Smart A50. So I wonder if it’d leave anything for Mozilla’s phones. This underlines one thing, it needs ecosystem not cheap phones that piss of end users.

For hardware partners, there’s nothing lucrative. All current affordable phones look more like prototypes that they decided to dump in the market. For cheaper phones, Android is a good option and Windows Phone is also touching new lows in terms of prices. To be honest, I was left disappointed after my first encounter with Firefox OS.