[A new mobile operating system is born. Telefonica and Mozilla have teamed up to deliver Open Web Devices. The ambition is high: displace the Apple/Google duopoly and commoditize app ecosystems. But can they do better than earlier attempts like WebOS? VisionMobile business analyst Stijn Schuermans sheds light on the challenging road ahead for this new platform candidate.]
“People say that I’m a dreamer, but I am not the only one.” John Lennon
Mozilla, the company behind Firefox (until recently the number two desktop browser) and top-5 mobile operator Telefonica are co-developing a new mobile operating system. The project is codenamed Boot2Gecko by Mozilla and devices running the OS are dubbed “Open Web Devices” by Telefonica. The goal is a phone that relies entirely on web technology and where all applications, from the dialler to games, are developed with HTML5.
At the MWC 2012 conference in Barcelona, Mozilla ran a demo of Boot2Gecko on a Samsung Galaxy II, a high-end smartphone. At the same conference, Telefonica showed the new operating system on a low-end reference design from Qualcomm, which will become available on low-cost smartphones at a sub-Android price point. Mozilla also announced the Mozilla Marketplace, an app store for web apps.
On the surface, this joint move by a major telco and a major Internet player makes a lot of sense. Mozilla and Telefonica are trying to disrupt the Apple/Google duopoly, starting from the low-end. By focusing on providing a good user experience on very low-end devices, Telefonica hopes to capture the emerging markets first. The telco plans to introduce direct-to-bill payments for mobile app purchases, as credit cards are not common in the emerging markets that the initiative targets.
As explained in Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, starting at the low end of the market is smart: the easiest way for Android device makers to protect their profitability is to leave the low margin devices to Open Web Devices and focus Android on higher-end devices, targeted at people who do have credit cards. This is the best way to disrupt Android. Google’s reaction will likely be lukewarm, as their interest is only in driving eyeballs to Google ads, which can be done perfectly from either platform.
A disruptive strategy like this provides Telefonica with the opportunity to give Google a taste of its own medicine. Telcos are under big pressure from the application ecosystems of Apple and Google, which now own the customer relationship and are pushing down the value of the carriers to dumb bit pipes. If telcos are not full participants in the application ecosystem, then why not commoditize apps entirely? For Telefonica, Open Web Devices are an attempt to reduce the power of the major platforms and their vertical application silos by moving app development and distribution to a more “neutral” web-based environment. If applications are primarily developed in a cross-platform way, the platform’s power weakens. Mozilla is an ideal partner for telcos to achieve this, being a fundamentally not-for-profit organization with a mission to keep the Internet open and free.
Mozilla and Telefonica are a good match in general for realising B2G as a competitor to Apple/Google; Mozilla can add the software foundations (APIs) and the developerecosystem around it, while Telefonica adds the OEM deals, monetisation and app store.
On paper, Boot2Gecko could be the new web-based platform that succeeds where webOS failed; it is open source (unlike what webOS used to be), it has multiple OEM partners interested, it is backed by a top-5 telco and it comes at a time when HTML5 has technically evolved and enjoys widespread industry support. Indeed, B2G could be the champion that leads HTML5 from being an enabling technology to achieving full platform status. The reality is that a lot needs to be done for that to happen.
In essence, the elements behind Telefonica’s Open Web Devices are not enough to win the hearts and wallets of consumers and developers: – Openness is a way to reduce developer marketing costs, but adds little value for end users. – Web is not a synonym for better user experience or the platform with which to appeal to games developers. – Devices running a web-based OS is a valid way to compete with Apple/Google, but a very expensive one, given that billions of dollars will have to be invested by Telefonica and handset OEMs before the OS reaches maturity and has a sizeable addressable market. Note that Microsoft is paying Nokia circa $1 billion a year to buy its way into an addressable market.
For Boot2Gecko to succeed, it needs to compete with the other mobile platforms on all five key ingredients: 1. Software foundations, a rich set of APIs with managed fragmentation. Telefonica has already contributed a lot of the device API glue code to Boot2Gecko (based on the carrier’s earlier work within WAC). However, competing with iOS, Android and WP7 is a major long-term effort. 2. A developer ecosystem, to spur innovation and cater to diverse use cases. There are millions of web developers out there, who need to be “onboarded” onto B2G, i.e. on its specific APIs and app distribution system. 3. Devices & distribution, i.e. a large addressable market of 10s of millions of phones sold each year. As a top-5 telco, Telefonica is a major success factor here, but needs to translate OEM intentions (notably from LG who’s an early partner) into project investments and volume commitments. A positive factor here is that B2G is running on the same reference designs and based on the same kernel and core libraries – and so, quicker to bring to market than Windows Phone. 4. Monetisation. Monetisation is essential to the creation of a healthy developer ecosystem – and Telefonica intends to provide carrier billing. 5. Retailing. It is still unclear which partner will be responsible for providing the on-device storefront, retailing and merchandising of apps to end users.
To their credit, Telefonica and Mozilla are progressing fast with Boot2Gecko. The first experiments started in October 2010 and the project really kicked off in March 2011. The phone demonstrated in February 2012 wore all the key core apps (dialler, phonebook, inbox, etc.) and a UI experience that is claimed to be better than the lowest-end Android handsets. The handset demonstrated by Telefonica runs on the same hardware as the original iPhone 3G, but can be sold at 1/10th of the price according to our sources.
This said, other contenders to the HTML5 platform crown, like Facebook Platform and Google Chrome, are already far more advanced in creating a viable ecosystem. Both Facebook and Chrome (the browser, the OS, but especially the web store) have already amassed substantial traction across screens and have solved at least some of the distribution, retailing and monetization challenges. The Mozilla Marketplace is a step in the right direction, but the organization has a lot of catching up to do.
Moreover, there is an obvious and much cheaper substitute to these attempts to create web-app platforms that Telefonica and other telcos need to consider, if their goal is to disrupt the Apple/Google duopoly. Cross-platform development tools [see our full report – www.CrossPlatformTools.com] make it much easier for developers to reach multiple platforms and flatten the competitive landscape of Apple and Google’s ecosystems.
In summary, Telefonica and Mozilla are making a very serious attempt at disrupting the current iOS/Android duopoly of application platforms. They do well to focus on low-end devices and to attack the link between apps and the platforms they run on. But using HTML5 technology or being open is not enough. Mozilla, in particular, has to prove that it can draw in web developers to this new platform and create a vibrant ecosystem. Telefonica not only needs to get OEMs enthusiastic, but also committed to produce phones in volume. Finally, it is unclear how this initiative can outrun the competition, Facebook and Chrome or whether Telefonica and Mozilla should instead invest in the alternative approach of cross-platform development tools.
Want to know more? VisionMobile offers deep insights into the HTML5 ecosystem and how it stands to disrupt the Apple/Google duopoly. Check out the latest research note in our CEO Trendwatch service (send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for access), or our Mobile Innovation Economics workshop.