Mozilla hopes new smartphone will catch on in developing markets

by / Thursday, 23 October 2014 / Published in Personal

As the global smartphone market grows more crowded all the time, it’s become a favorite move of niche players to focus their efforts on affordable mobile devices for developing economies, with the idea being that developed economies like the United States and Europe have a smartphone market that is already completely dominated by Android and iOS devices.

mozillaMozilla has become the most recent company to go that route, announcing a $25 smartphone that will come bundled with Firefox OS, a mobile operating system that is virtually unheard on in the United States. The company hopes that the device’s tiny price tag will help it catch on in economies like Indonesia and India, where large portions of the population are just now reaching the point where owning a smartphone might seem like a possibility.

Of course, the price tag will certainly be one of the most appealing things about the new Mozilla smartphone. Such a small price means that the device would not be that much of a price increase over the feature phones that are widely used in developing markets today.

There are obviously a lot of challenges that need to be overcome before the new Mozilla can really gain a place in the global smartphone market. The first is a lack of developers working on Firefox OS applications. This is kind of a chicken-egg situation—there aren’t a lot of developers because there aren’t a lot users, but the lack of developers is a major drawback that stands in the way of getting more users.

I think that Mozilla’s hope is that first-time smartphone owners may be happy just to be getting a smartphone in the first place, and would therefore be more willing to overlook a smaller selection of apps than customers in developed economies who have already become accustomed to the fully stocked app stores offered by Android and iOS devices.

It’s important to note that both India and Indonesia have larger populations than the United States, so even if the phone only catches on with some of the first-time smartphone owners in those two countries, we’re still talking about a seriously large user base. Over time, that user base could grow and mature into something that would start getting developers’ attention, which would finally allow Firefox OS to get the app selection it is so sorely lacking right now.

Another potentially more troubling challenge that needs to be overcome is the mobile data infrastructure in the developing world. In many of the countries where Mozilla intends to sell their new smartphone, mobile data reception is spotty at best, which kind of throws into question how successful a smartphone could really be in those types of places.

Both India and Indonesia have announced plans to develop their mobile data networks, and the force of global technology adoption leads me to believe its a matter of when, not if, those countries develop consistent nationwide mobile data service. However, the promise of a mobile data infrastructure that will be in place at some point in the future doesn’t do much to help out Mozilla’s plans to sell the smartphones in the upcoming months. We’ll have to wait and see how much the problem of infrastructure affects the smartphone adoption rates in developing economies.

In spite of the two challenges I’ve outlined here, I’m still hopeful that Firefox OS can catch on in a big way. Having a little healthy competition is always good for the smartphone business, and the more players we have who are seriously involved, the better.

Having a new mobile OS that has widespread adoption in developing economies could also play a vital role in helping those economies grow. We’ve seen over and over again that there’s no limit to the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit that technology professionals have in these poorer countries. What they really need is an opportunity to present their ideas to the world in the form of a money-making venture, and having their own developer’s community built around a mobile OS that has widespread adoption within their own countries could be just such an opportunity. If Firefox OS can make that happen, it could end up meaning big things for developing countries.