Precarious future for open source smartphones?

Dec 09, 2015, 2:52 PM EST
Source: Areta do Bem/flickr
Source: Areta do Bem/flickr

The news that Mozilla will shutter its open source smartphone business — a branch of the company that’s only been in operation for about two years — has the open source world taking note. The success and failures of open source smartphones, particularly ones based on Linux, have been closely watched over the last few years. Many in tech have wondered how well the various companies that have launched open source mobile businesses will fare in a landscape dominated by mobile giants like Apple, Samsung, Xiaomi, Lenovo, etc. While it’s too early to call Firefox OS's shuttering an indicator for the open source mobile market as a whole, it is an important marker.

The company announced on Tuesday that it will stop developing and selling Firefox OS smartphones. TechCrunch quotes Ari Jaaksi, Mozilla’s SVP of Connected Devices:

“We are proud of the benefits Firefox OS added to the Web platform and will continue to experiment with the user experience across connected devices. We will build everything we do as a genuine open source project, focused on user experience first and build tools to enable the ecosystem to grow.

Firefox OS proved the flexibility of the Web, scaling from low-end smartphones all the way up to HD TVs. However, we weren’t able to offer the best user experience possible and so we will stop offering Firefox OS smartphones through carrier channels.”

Sales of Mozilla’s devices were poor, and this announcement has the open source world looking at how viable open source mobile products are. Jolla, Finland-based open source smartphone company that created the Sailfish OS, debuted the same year as Firefox OS and has been struggling. The company looked to be on the way to moderate success as it launched multiple devices having seen relative demand. Recently it has experienced layoffs. 

Ubuntu and Tizen are two other names in open source that have had tumultuous years; Canonical has had a difficult time expanding Ubuntu beyond Europe, and the jury is still out on how Samsung is faring with Tizen in various markets. The company did launch the OS into India earlier this year, saw success and launched a second phone. But Samsung was able to introduce its Tizen phones dubbed Z1 and Z3 at lower prices. Suffice it to say, it helps to have deep pockets, and rumor has it that Samsung is setting up its place in the Indian market for the internet of things.  

But perhaps these smaller companies like Jolla are content to keep their customer base little; after all, it’s hard to imagine any of their executives believing that their devices would soar into, say, the top 10 figures of sales around the world. Especially given how mammoth shipment figures are now for smartphones, and how mobile giants are lowering the costs of some of their devices to appeal to more markets. The intent for some of these open source companies has been more to provide alternative options for mobile users who can afford such products, while also steering customers away from juggernauts like Apple and Samsung. While Mozilla’s announcement is disheartening to some in the open source market, there are still several other entities who haven’t thrown in the towel.