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MWC 2013: Firefox OS - the simple software to unify the entry level market

The mobile industry is abuzz with talk about Mozilla’s new Firefox OS this evening after ITProPortal witnessed its official unveiling at MWC in Barcelona, and having had a chance to get acquainted with the software and hear about its logic, I feel Mozilla could well be onto something with this project.

With Firefox OS, simplicity is key. Aimed at middle to lower-end handsets, Mozilla has stripped back some of the complexity of iOS, Android and Windows Phone interfaces, so less tech-savvy users can have no problem working their way around the menu screens.

As the market for lower end handsets continues to explode away from Western economies, Firefox OS’s potential ability to unify the next wave of budget phones under its system could reap huge (non-profit) benefits for Mozilla.

I took my first look at the new OS on Alcatel’s One Touch Fire smartphone, unveiled alongside the 5in One Touch Idol X at the Pepcom event at MWC this evening - and the software seemed to make a lot of sense.

A solitary, soft home button sets the tone for simplicity, and provides a reassuring get-out for users prone to getting lost in the web of an OS. The menu screens are cut from the same cloth as iOS and Android with traditional rows of icons on display, but, as Alcatel execs explained, the layering element of these more esteemed OSes has been completely taken away. What you see it what you get, allowing for easy switching from one menu screen to another, with a sense of moving sideways rather inwards or outwards.

Another key feature is the home screen’s bottom bar which presents clear icons for call, text, browsing and other options, with the bar also sliding sideways like the menu screens. This further reduces the sense of a ‘journey’ through the UI – something smartphone enthusiasts typically embrace – but can put off many everyday users.

Speaking from experience, I’ve had family members who have been sold devices like the Samsung Galaxy S3 by their mobile operators, and while they can appreciate the power and design of the phone, the multitude of options allowing customisation and in-depth exploring of the 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS is somewhat lost on them, and ultimately ends up causing confusion. It is not patronising to say different phones suit different needs, and the easy-to-grasp nature of Firefox OS could really work in its favour.

Elsewhere, there is a nod to the Mozilla community with a feedback page accessible form the home screen which enables users to send quick messages to the creators about what’s working with the software and what needs some improvement. I was also impressed by one particular menu screen which automatically consolidated apps into relevant groups – i.e. social networks all under a ‘sharing’ icon and video services in ‘media’. This again helps general navigation and maintenance easy, even when new apps and features are flooding onto the device.

With these credible features in mind, it was disappointing to find that Firefox OS was particularly sluggish when I tested it out on the Alcatel One Touch Fire. Significant lag was evident every time I flicked between menu screens and app-load times were equally slow. Of course we were never expecting iOS 6, Jelly Bean-esque responsiveness, and Firefox’s target market is less likely to notice or care about this, but for a brand new OS it would have been nice to have seen something a little slicker.

But, as noted, this drawback doesn’t really impact on the core strategy on which Mozilla is looking to build its mobile success. We are constantly told about the incredible sales growth of lower-end phones in emerging markets, and if this continues apace, Firefox OS could become the number one umbrella software to encapsulate a sector.

Will began working life as a technology journalist at ITProPortal as Senior Staff Writer. He's worked as a Copywriter, then Creative Lead across video, social, email, web and print. He is currently a Senior Content Strategist at Zone.