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The non-profit Mozilla Foundation, best known for the Firefox Web browser, announced plans last week to develop a smartphone operating system for the developing world, beginning in Latin America.  

Partnering with Spanish wireless carrier Telefonica, Mozilla is looking to market the phones for about $100 to $115 while still including common smartphone features, such as a good camera and big touchscreen. Google and Apple smartphones still usually retail for several hundred dollars in emerging markets. 

In its announcement, Mozilla is placing a bet that more open, web-based apps will face an easier path to adoption for new smartphone owners. Their approach is based in HTML5, a markup language that allows websites to act like apps on mobile devices, rather than “native app” software that must be downloaded to a phone. According to the New York Times:

Mozilla hopes its phone will increase the use of the Web on mobile devices, instead of mobile apps created to work only with Apple or Google products. It still plans to release a mobile “store” where people can buy mobile software, but does not plan to police it, like Apple does, or block developers not working with Google, as the search company does with its store.

The Firefox smartphones will work according to technical standards that will make it easy for content developed for the Web to move to phones, Mr. Kovacs said, perhaps eventually eliminating the need for specially built mobile applications.

In May, Technology Review publisher and editor-in-chief Jason Pontin wrote his own take on why the media industry’s future lies with web-based HTML5 technology, rather than native apps, which can be expensive and needlessly complicated to develop for different devices (See “Why Publishers Don’t Like Apps”). The smartphone industry is still only at the beginning of a huge growth curve as it spreads into new markets. If Mozilla succeeds at becoming a third major operating system, there may be many more apps that spring from the Web. 

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