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Chinese Phone Giant Chooses a Web-Based Mobile OS

ZTE snubs Android in favor of software made by Firefox.

ZTE, China’s biggest maker of mobile phones, says it’s soon going to be selling phones that run on a novel Web-based operating system developed by Mozilla. The news is a small setback for the further rise to global dominance of Google’s Android operating system but a positive sign for Web standards.

Web OS: ZTE, China’s largest maker of smartphones, will start making devices that use Mozilla’s new Web-based mobile operating system.

No one from ZTE could be reached for comment. But quoted in China Daily, He Shiyou, executive vice president of the Shenzen-based company, cited the recent patent battles between Apple and Samsung (see “Apple-Samsung: The Verdict on Innovation”) and said: “We will avoid relying too greatly on one single operating system.”

ZTE, which said it would be selling the phones by early next year, is the world’s fifth-largest maker of mobile phones. Android is used in more than 60 percent of the nearly 700 million smartphones expected to be sold worldwide in 2012, IDC, an analyst firm, estimates. Samsung, the world’s leading smartphone manufacturer, is a major user of Android. The iPhone uses Apple’s iOS operating system.

The novelty of the Firefox Mobile OS—formerly known as a project called Boot to Gecko (B2G)—is that it is built on Web standards.

The OS allows the phone’s functions, such as making calls or determining location, to run in any Web-based HTML5 application, not just in applications written specifically for that phone’s onboard operating system (see “Mozilla Wants a Browser to Control Your Phone”).

Though the theoretical advantages are clear, it’s a fairly radical step. “It’s not been tried except by Google, this idea of basically creating your entire user experience in a browser,” says Carl Howe, vice president at Yankee Group, an analyst firm in Boston. “Google did this in Chromebooks, but nobody has tried it with a smartphone.”

He adds: “It’s hard to judge how well it will work out, but I would say I’m skeptical, because consumers have gotten used to an app-based experience.”

However radical it is, it’s not unexpected: Mozilla announced ZTE as a partner this summer. Mozilla did not immediately reply to questions about how ZTE has customized the OS.

More Firefox-powered phones are expected; Mozilla had announced that TCL Communication Technology would make phones under the Alcatel One Touch brand, and that more phones would launch in 2013 from the Brazilian telecom Telefonica’s brand, called Vivo.

The question is whether these small efforts will be enough to attract enough developers to make interesting apps for the Web-based OS. “The challenge,” Howe says, “is how to get critical mass behind your platform.”

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