FirefoxOS and Developing Markets

It seems Mozilla is targeting emerging markets and developing nations with $25 cell phones. This is tremendous news, and an admirable focus for Mozilla, but it is not without risk.

Bringing simple, accessible technology to these markets can have a profound impact. As an example, in 2001, 134 million Nigerians shared 500,000 land-lines (as covered by Jack Ewing in Businessweek back in 2007). That year the government started encouraging wireless market competition and by 2007 Nigeria had 30 million cellular subscribers.

This generated market competition and better products, but more importantly, we have seen time and time again that access to technology such as cell phones improves education, provides opportunities for people to start small businesses, and in many cases is a contributing factor for bringing people out of poverty.

So, cell phones are having a profound impact in these nations, but the question is, will it work with FirefoxOS?

I am not sure.

In Mozilla’s defence, they have done an admirable job with FirefoxOS. They have built a powerful platform, based on open web technology, and they lined up a raft of carriers to launch with. They have a strong brand, an active and passionate community, and like so many other success stories, they already have a popular existing product (their browser) to get them into meetings and headlines.

Success though is judged by many different factors, and having a raft of carriers and products on the market is not enough. If they ship in volume but get high return rates, it could kill them, as is common for many new product launches.

What I don’t know is whether this volume/return-rate balance plays such a critical role in developing markets. I would imagine that return rates could be higher (such as someone who has never used a cell phone before taking it back because it is just too alien to them). On the other hand, I wonder if those consumers there are willing to put up with more quirks just to get access to the cell network and potentially the Internet.

What seems clear to me is that success here has little to do with the elegance or design of FirefoxOS (or any other product for that matter). It is instead about delivering incredibly dependable hardware. In developing nations people have less access to energy (for charging devices) and have to work harder to obtain it, and have lower access to support resources for how to use new technology. As such, it really needs to just work. This factor, I imagine, is going to be more outside of Mozilla’s hands.

So, in a nutshell, if the $25 phones fail to meet expectations, it may not be Mozilla’s fault. Likewise, if they are successful, it may not be to their credit.

  • Jef Spaleta

    In developing nations… like Alaskan villages off the road system.. cough…

  • Anonymous

    I should send out a care package. :-)

  • jan hurt

    I don’t really think so. I’ve been in Ghana once, and (at least where i’ve been) acess to energy wasn’t a very big problem. The biggest problem was the network connection. While almost everybody almost everywhere used the internet on their phones, the connection was literrally unasable slow (~6kbyte/sec.). Therefore for them, the biggest reason to get a smartphone might be, to use WhatsApp (in my opinion this is also the best chatapp for bad network connections, it sends messages even over the slowest network connections – when the facebook abb already stopped working.) Because of this, I think the lack of whatsapp is the biggest threat for the success of firefoxos in developing countries.

  • Jef Spaleta

    more seriously… the price point is already sort of staked out in terms of hardware expectations. There are some Android devices down there now, and some Brew OS device and even some Symbian OS still down there…on sale in the lower 48 from brick and mortar retailers even. Alot of pre-paid minute phones down in that price range. Phones in the sub $50 range are a well understood value proposition on the supply-demand curve for mobile phones for individuals of modest means.

    And I agree with you on one point.. I really don’t think people who buy phones down at that price point care at all what the OS actually is. But I think manufacturers have some idea on how to make a “good enough” piece of hardware to make the price point work..even in the US market. They will never be great phones compared to premiere phones.. but they are good value for money if you still consider it to be primarily a phone instead of an hd entertainnment device in your pocket. And if Moz can bring a fully html5 services complain phone into that price range.. then fantastic. I look forward to buying one of the $25 if I can get it,and give my zte open to my wife as an upgrade to her flipphone. As long as whatever smart phone will let me play blackjack offline via some sort of app… I’m good. And really this zte open orange color is too Ubuntu for me. Need something far far less orange in my pocket.

  • Allen Bethea

    You said,

    “I would imagine that return rates could be higher (such as someone who has never used a cell phone before taking it back because it is just too alien to them”

    Perhaps Canonical or Mozilla could work on a drum interface that Africans are more accustomed to. Taps could vary by pitch, tone, duration and rhythm. Not XPRIZE-class work, but it could revolutionize communication on the dark continent.

  • Benjamin Kerensa

    So to start off it is “Firefox OS” much like Juju is Juju or juju but not JuJu.

    “Success though is judged by many different factors, and having a raft of carriers and products on the market is not enough. If they ship in volume but get high return rates, it could kill them, as is common for many new product launches.”

    As far as I know we do not have any elevated return rates (I would be privy to this) one thing that sets our platform apart from others is we have a very nice product tour upon first run of each device that familiarizes users with features, settings, marketplace etc. We have also worked closely with communities in each country doing lots of events to familiarize the masses with the platform ahead of launches and then also involving those communities in our launch country activities.

    I will say that we have had some issues with a vendor or two and have worked quickly to address those issues (What platform hasn’t though?) and also learned from them. With each iteration of new hardware we are seeing more and more polish and I would invite you to stop by our booth at OSCON to check out our newest phones and tablets or stop by our OSCON party to have a cocktail and talk with some of our team.

  • Benjamin Kerensa

    We have a WhatsApp Client for Firefox OS.

  • Benjamin Kerensa

    There are Android devices with low price points but their lower end hardware is also not able to perform well Android on board but with Firefox OS being much more nimble and fast that’s not the case.

  • jan hurt

    But not an official one?

  • Jef Spaleta

    I’m not arguing that Android is better, i was just trying to provide a counterpoint to Jono’s concern that the quality of the hardware at that pricepoint is an unknown factor. I think Jono is right in that hardware reliability is important, but I think the players in the market already understand this.

    I think OEMs overall have a much better idea of ROI for any product entering into the commodity pricepoint. Premier top end phones I think a much riskier because they have to introduce new features, with no track record. I think that’s far riskier. Higher risk, higher reward. But for the commodity phone hardware, well all you have to do is be marginally cost effective at providing existing functionality. Anything new is gravy on top. And they also know the return on these phones is far far thinner. The real money at least in the US is selling minutes, the phones down at the commodity end are effectively the PEZ despensor, and the PEZ candy are the phone minutes. You sell the candy and effectively give the cutesy despensors away for free.

    And I really don’t think the commondity price point is particular sensitive to OS performance metrics. FFOS might be better than Android on hardware at the pricepoint, and that might be a good hook to get OEMs to preinstall it. But does performance effectively matter for the consumers looking at product in the sub $50 range? It’d have to be way better. But even then I’m not sure it will matter compared to other factors. Nobody buys a subcompact commuter car primarily on its engine performance. And that’s exactly what we are talking about here at this price point. I would actually suspect that a “slow” OS that does a great job of conserving battery power would see more utility at this price point than a “Fast” OS which burns more energy when doing basic operations.


  • Jef Spaleta

    I should point out I’ve already personally drunk the FFOS koolaid for entirely unpragmatic reasons. I got a zte open as soon as I could. And if I can get the $25 phone, I’ll probably get that one and use it as my primary phone device. because well when you spend two months in Antarctica every year… its basically like living in a development nation.

  • Benjamin Kerensa

    An official one is underway but even the third party have all the basic functionality.

  • Danilo

    Whatever “developing” nations might be (Serbia would probably count as a semi-developed country ;)), I can tell you that return rates in Serbia are not high for any kind of product simply because 1. legislature was not good, clear or in place at all to allow for that for a long time and 2. going through return process can still be sometimes very slow. I’ve always been insistent, and I’ve faced very bad service, and only occasionally succeeded (once, it took me 3 months to get an obviously-used-unit-sold-as-new returned and get my money back with one of the biggest retailers in Serbia).

    This deters people from bothering, thus, using number of returns vs number of sold products in Serbia would never be a clear measure of a successful product.

    I am not sure how much would that apply in countries that Firefox OS is targeting, but I suspect it might be quite similar.

  • Anonymous

    Ben, I am not saying Mozilla does have high return rates, I am just saying that the determining factor for return rates could be the hardware more than anything.

    I think Mozilla has done a nice job. I used FFOS the other day when Aq was over and while it feels a little clunky in places (mainly due to the low res screen), it is overall a very nice, simple, and accessible mobile OS. Importantly, it feels like it provides all the necessary bits to compete in that market.