Kindling Flames - Firefox OS Review

5 minute read

I’ve been meaning to write a Firefox OS review ever since I got a device capable of running it.

In a world dominated by Apple and Google we need a strong third contender to keep both of them honest and foster further competition. Of all new companies coming to the mobile market, the one I think has the most potential is definitely Mozilla. While I find Jolla Sailfish and Ubuntu Touch to be interesting, I think that both of them are, for the most part, “me too” products that don’t bring anything substantially new to the table, aside from some minor UI/UX tweaks.

Mozilla, on the other hand, is pushing Firefox OS to emerging markets and is using the operating system to improve and move forward the Web as a platform. It does all of this while being a non-profit company.

This review is about a pre-release version of Firefox OS 2.0. Some things have changed since then but most of the points in this post are still valid.

The Hardware

With no high-end devices and no plans from Mozilla to ever come up with one, I decided to buy the best phone available: the Flame.

The Flame phone is Mozilla’s reference device used to develop Firefox OS. While it is nowhere near the specs of current high end phones, it can be definitely be considered the best one you can buy if you want to run Firefox OS. In practice, this means that all other devices will miss something that the Flame has, be it RAM, screen resolution, sensors or computing power.

The phone ain’t cheap either: 160€ (including customs fees) give you a device with acceptable build quality, a low-resolution screen and a plastic screen, dual-SIM slot, GPS and a modest camera with flash.

The Flame approaches my ideal form factor of 4.5 inches and it feels great in the hand. It strikes the perfect balance balance between huge phones like the Nexus 5 (or 6) and smaller phones like the iPhone 5.

The plastic screen catches fingerprints like a magnet, making the screen unreadable. Sometimes, but enough to be frustrating, the digitizer doesn’t register touch events. 1

Those issues are exacerbated by a weird placement of the power button and the way the software handles it. I frequently caught the phone continuously rebooting when put in my back pocket. Screen issues are an annoyance but this is a severe design flaw that make the phone unusable and prone to rapid battery discharge.

As a potential user I would like better options but there are none. Nowadays, a 250€ Android phone is more than capable to deliver a good experience. If this is the best device available, I am disappointed. I realize that I’m not the target user of these devices at the moment and I can only hope that Mozilla begins to consider richer markets in the future.

The Software

Firefox OS is surprisingly well refined for a project this young (the first public release appeared in mid 2013, that’s one year and a half ago at the time of writing) and the UI is pleasant to look at.

The setup process is clear and easy to follow. Once I popped in my SIM card, the phone asked me to enable mobile data and the settings shade began showing the amount of traffic I had left on my data plan.

The user interface is relatively fast and fluid with few hiccups here and there but nothing compared to Android of the early days. 2

The Calendar application supports CalDAV syncing but, interestingly, the Contacts one does not support CardDAV. Since I was using ownCloud at the time, I had to export my contacts as a vCard file, use an USB cable to put the file on the Flame’s internal memory and then manually import it. The process worked flawlessly, with the phone discovering which file to import, but I found that to be cumbersome. I suggest Mozilla to focus on adding CardDAV syncing as soon as possible. 3

On the application front, my needs are modest. The few things I tried worked perfectly such as using Sharedrop.io to move files between devices and a QR Code scanning application which even showed real-time acquisition data, something I thought it wasn’t still possible with an HTML5 app. Aside from that, I’m missing WhatsApp and few other apps that are available only natively on other platforms.

Unfortunately, the browser doesn’t support Firefox extensions, which means no AdBlock or LastPass integration, yet. As I understand it, the browser architecture is significantly different from desktop Firefox (or even Firefox for Android) since it is implemented in pure HTML (no XUL?) and some extension points might be missing altogether. It seems it isn’t even possible to change the default search provider (though it will be possible to use DuckDuckGo in the future). Thus, the browser experience feels severely limited compared to other platforms where Firefox is available.

The only deal breaker is missing support for copying and pasting text around. People are working on it but I don’t think we will see something that works before next year. 4

Conclusions

To be blunt, if we limit ourselves to the software side, Firefox OS doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Android and iOS cater to almost every need and cover a huge range of price points. Being able to write native applications is something Firefox OS lacks, since it is limited to HTML5 applications. The Web platform still lacks many features we take for granted with native applications such as push notifications, media capabilities and, let’s be honest, good performance.

If we go beyond that, we learn that Mozilla really wants to move the web forward and bring it to the “next billion” users in emerging markets. This has a huge potential to bring new users on-line and, in turn, create new business opportunities and enrich the life of many. This is why I believe Mozilla can and should succeed in lieu of other companies trying to carve a third spot in the Android/iOS duopoly.

Go Mozilla, go!

Footnotes

  1. I’m not sure if this is merely a software problem that can be solved with a software update or there’s an hardware component to blame. 

  2. With its consistent choppy animations and software-based rendering. 

  3. The Contacts application supports importing contacts from Google Contacts and Outlook but I didn’t have a chance to test them. 

  4. We all know the iPhone got copy and paste with iPhone OS 3, two years after the initial release. Being the first phone of its kind, however, we can partially excuse Apple for not implementing this feature from the get-go. We live in a different age, however, and there are really no excuses to miss this important feature.