The makers of the Firefox web browser are developing a mobile operating system to compete with Apple's iOS and Google's Android. A little-known Spanish firm will provide the low-cost hardware.
When it finally makes the move, Mozilla will step into one of the hottest commercial arenas, pitting itself against Apple's iOS and Google's Android platform. The two platforms hold 92 percent of the global market, according to a new study by Strategy Analytics.
The Firefox maker will soon release its own mobile operating system - having recently revealed a first preview. For the hardware, it has hooked up with a little-known, yet suitably trendy-named firm called Geeksphone.
Based in Madrid, Geeksphone was founded in 2009 and has Telefónica as its carrier, a Spanish telecommunications giant with annual revenues in the 60-billion-euro range
But Geeksphone has "young tech entrepreneur" stamped all over it.
Co-founded Javier Agüera says the idea is to make affordable smartphones that work with Mozilla's open Web standards, and they are working on two devices for the start.
"The Keon is an entry level device and the Peak is a mid-to-high range device," says Agüera. "And what happens with Firefox is that it's able to run much better on lower end devices than its competitors."
Open source and free
Mozilla says that it wants to ensure that Internet users are not locked into a "vendor-controlled ecosystem like iTunes or Google's Android store."
A good operating system is everything - but that hasn't stopped millions buying phones they're unhappy with
"We fully align with that objective and that is why we are making Firefox OS a key pillar of our strategy," says Agüera.
The mobile market is already crowded - but many consumers say they are unhappy with the current product offering, saying systems are often unstable.
Adam Leach, a technology analyst with the consultancy Ovum in the UK, says Mozilla's plunge into the market has the potential to shake up the industry.
"This is an important move for the industry," says Leach, "and it's a move by Mozilla to try and break open the current duopoloy we have with smartphone software platforms. So we have the two big platforms, iOS and Android, owned by the two big companies, Apple and Google. And the move by Mozilla is to try and open up the space and allow more freedom for developers and other content owners to build applications and services and not be controlled by these two companies."
One of Mozilla's core values is its adherence to open web standards. The mobile OS will be fully compatible with HTML5 - the latest (and still developing) web specification. But more than that, Mozilla is resolutely open source, meaning, technically, anyone can change the software. Similar to Android at its very start.
"The Firefox OS is based on HTML5 technology, which is the same technology used to build the web and websites, so there will be a way for them to search and to find apps in a discovery way. Because app stores play a dual purpose - they create the catalogue of applications and then allow people to discover those applications. With HTML5 you can still have a catalogue of applications that's searchable, which there won't be the same constraints on with the Mozilla OS," says Leach.
While Leach says it's unusual to see the hook up between Mozilla and Geeksphone, he sees it as an indication of how mobile phones are made today.
"I guess it's slightly surprising in that you'd expect it to go to some of the other low-cost manufacturing regions that are more known for this sort of product," says Leach. "But I think where we are with smartphone or phone development is we have a lot of commoditization in the building blocks to build a phone and it's a lot easier to source the parts and construct phones."
Geeksphone source their parts and build their phones outside of Spain to keep costs down. But that may change - like US firms, including Apple, bringing manufacturing back home.
Research In Motion's Blackberry 10, with its revamped OS, is another new contender for a slice of the market
"No, they're not manufactured in Spain," admits Agüera, "although all the engineering, all the creative things [are done] here. We wish that in the future we will have the capability to bring more and more parts of the process back to Spain, but at the moment we need to manufacture in Asia."
And despite his country's deep recession, Agüera believes Spain is well suited for growth in the tech sector.
"Due to the economic crisis, the government is enforcing and creating new laws that will favor entrepreneurship, so the conditions are going to be there and are going to be good. And also we have many good universities for engineering. You have a pool of talent and with salaries that are now reasonable in Spain, way below Silicon Valley," says Agüera.
Unemployment is at 27 percent in Spain, and for the young it's as high as 46 percent. There has also been a significant drop in investment in research and development. As a result, Spain is experiencing a massive brain drain - with many young Spaniards looking for jobs abroad.
Agüera hopes Spain's tech sector will turn the trend around.
"If we want to build a better Spain for the future, we had better invest in sectors that have a bright future," says Agüera. "Many, many people are studying technology related degrees now and the job market is demanding more and more of these professionals."
But the first release of Geeksphone's Mozilla-enhanced smartphones will not be in Spain, but in Brazil, where the company hopes to tap a large market for low-cost smartphones.