Here’s Why Mozilla Is Building A $US25 Smartphone

Andreas Gal
Mozilla CTO Andreas Gal Mozilla

Last week, Mozilla tapped Andreas Gal as its new chief technology officer.

Gal’s rise to CTO comes under less-than-ideal circumstances. He’s filling the role that Brendan Eich left in March for his short and controversial stint as Mozilla CEO.

Eich resigned after only nine days, amid an outcry over his 2008 support for a California law banning same-sex marriage. The controversy rocked the normally tight-knit community of developers that helps produce Mozilla’s free, open-source Internet applications. Jay Sullivan, former chief marketing officer, is now acting CEO as Mozilla looks for a new boss.

Gal, a six-year Mozilla veteran who most recently served as vice president of mobile, says he’s confident the company can regroup. He’s intensely focused on Firefox OS, a mobile operating system with big ambitions: winning the battle for the next two billion smartphone users.

Firefox OS only runs apps written in HTML5, the Web’s core coding language. This is a radical departure from the native app platforms that dominate the global smartphone market: Google’s Android, Apple’s iOS, and Microsoft’s Windows Phone. Native apps can only run on the operating systems (and in Apple’s case the hardware) that they’re written for, while HTML5 apps can run on any device with a Web browser.

Gal spoke with us from Mozilla’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. just one day after his promotion. The full interview was originally published in two parts on BI Intelligence.

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This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

BI Intelligence: Why the big push at Mozilla toward a Web-based mobile operating system? What kind of advantages does it offer?

Andreas Gal: The key strength of HTML5 is that it’s not a controlled, owned ecosystem the way Android and iOS are. That actually makes it completely different, because when you look at these proprietary systems, every aspect of the ecosystem — the commercial economics, but also the actual technology — is controlled by a corporation like Apple or Google. We believe that’s not really the right approach to scale up globally. If you look at an app store based on iOS for example — and Apple controls what kind of content can go in there — that might scale to all of North America, but it’s very hard to see how that’s going to scale to seven or eight billion people over time. The world is too large for that. So that’s one of the most important abstract advantages of HTML5.

BI Intelligence: Where do you see the biggest opportunity to grab market share with Firefox OS?

Andreas Gal: If we have this conversation again in five years, my prediction is that HTML5 will have taken over every part of the ecosystem: low-end, high-end, tablets, smartphones.

In the shorter term, we have a very specific strategy. We looked at the market and felt that it’s segmented — at the high end is iPhone, the most expensive, really polished high-end experience. With Android, Google is trying to get it closer and closer to the iPhone experience. They’re trying to compete with the iPhone. We felt that the high-end is not really a good place to start, so we looked at the opposite end of the spectrum. If you look at the area of very affordable smartphones — probably the first smartphone experience for the next couple of billion people who are coming online — that market is really a vacuum these days, because Google is pulling their experience up. They’re leaving behind literally billions of people who are in parts of the world where iPhones, or a very high-end Android phone, are not really alternatives. It’s a tremendous opportunity — there are billions of people who are looking for this kind of phone. There are many more people who are looking for this kind of price-point than people who can afford iOS.

Firefox OS Homescreen

BII: What’s the strategy for reaching those people?
AG: Last year, we launched in 14 countries all over Latin America and Eastern Europe. Those are markets where many people use feature phones today. So they will need to update to their first smartphones, and an iPhone or a high-end smartphone is not really viable for them. The first version of Firefox OS is really tuned toward the first-time smartphone user, to teach you how to use data, give you a way to discover apps in a playful way. We show you what kind of apps might be useful.

BII: Mozilla has announced plans for a $US25 smartphone. Where are those plans, and when can we expect to see that phone start shipping?

AG: We’re working with a chipset partner in China, and together with them and manufacturers we believe we’ll be able to bring the price tag down to $US25 for a simple, affordable smartphone. We have not released any concrete dates, but we already said to expect availability shortly after [the Mobile World Congress] in February. So we’re working on bringing these devices to market with various execution partners, and you should see updates not too long from now.

BII: Will we see Firefox OS running on more premium devices at any point?

AG: We’ll start slowly offering a wider range of devices. So we’re working with some other partners on making slightly higher-end Firefox OS smartphones. And “higher-end” is kind of in air-quotes — it means we’ll start to cover the whole entry-level segment, but also that we’re going to start ranging into the mid-tier segment. We’re still not trying to compete with iOS in any way. We still see Android as the competitor. At the high-end we might bump into the Android platform.

BII: Can HTML5 compete on experience at the higher end?

AG: We don’t really see a limitation to HTML5 — you can actually have very high-end, 3-D immersive gaming, and we’ve shown demos of that. We don’t see HTML5 as the ecosystem specifically for affordable phones, we simply think that it’s a great entry opportunity into the market. Given enough time and enough development, we will climb up the ladder and offer more high-end devices over the next couple of years. At some point, HTML5 should be able to cover the entire market. But today for us, the focus is at the entry-level price point.

BII: What are your success metrics for Firefox OS?

AG: Mozilla, as you probably know, is a very unusual entity. We are a nonprofit foundation, so for us success is a little bit different. We don’t have shareholders, we don’t have profit statements. I don’t have to go to a board and justify how much money we make. So those are all non-goals for us. This makes our approach a little bit different. One of the reasons we can afford to target the entry-level segment — despite things like average revenue per user, which could be very low — is that the revenue is not really a driving force for us. For us, it’s important to reach as many people as possible with technology, and bring digital content to them. So that’s really the key metric and the key driver we’re using right now, reaching people, bringing the open Web to them, bringing content to them, and bringing more people into this digital age through a smartphone, which for many people is the first device they will use to access online content. We are trying to bring open standards to people, to allow them to access open ecosystems.

BII: It seems like market share would be a good indicator of progress on that front, though.

AC: Our ultimate strategy is to make HTML5 the dominant standard in mobile, and to displace these proprietary ecosystems that lock people into a jail. That would be the larger success for us, not just for us to be successful with HTML5, but for others to also be successful with HTML5. So in an ideal world, a couple of years from now, I would like to not only see Firefox OS succeed with this open ecosystem, but also Android and iOS starting to embrace the HTML5 open ecosystem. If you look at desktops, Firefox doesn’t have 100% share today on desktop, and that’s good. We have a certain share, there’s a certain share for Chrome, for Safari, or even [Internet Explorer]. And this is great, because nobody controls the desktop. These companies all compete with each other for the user, and this creates an unparalleled pace of innovation. So we would like to see the same thing happen on mobile, that HTML5 is the open technology standard behind everything mobile. We all will compete over the quality of the implementation, instead of using proprietary ecosystems to lock people into the technology stack.

BII: There have been some high-level shake-ups at Mozilla in the past month, with Brendan Eich’s promotion from CTO to CEO and subsequent resignation. What was the reaction on your team, and how do those changes impact the overall product strategy for Firefox OS?

AG: The Firefox OS engineering team reports to me, and there has been no change in that. But Brendan’s departure was unexpected. That was certainly something that left a lasting impression at Mozilla. We had all been working with Brendan for a very long time. Personally, I’ve worked with him for six years, very closely, and I used to report to him until very recently. And there are people on my team who had worked with him even longer, people who were around when Mozilla was founded many years ago. So of course, Brendan is a very important part of Mozilla — he is one of the co-founders. This kind of change never happens without completely impacting people. But at the same time, we have very important things to do this year. And we have many millions of devices to get into people’s hands. So I think my entire team is going to be focused on that, and I haven’t seen any disruption to what’s happening on that level.

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