You have to respect a company or organization that tries to reinvent itself. It’s never easy, it usually comes with a lot of criticism and birthing pains, and if they make it to the other side, they’ll never be the same again. It’s what’s been happening in the mobile market for the last six years now and it’s what starting to happen, once again, to the computing market in general.
So when an organization such as Mozilla, makers of the once uber-popular Firefox browser, decides to move way beyond its comfort zone and try to make a full-fledged mobile operating system, you know people will be paying attention.
Firefox OS is the result of this long-term bet for Mozilla and, even though it’s still in its very early stages, it has its fair share of fans and enthusiasts. We’ve seen bits and pieces of the nascent OS at different events around the world, not to mention the number of times we’ve seen it ported to existing Android devices, but now we finally have an official product on the market, backed by a Chinese OEM, ZTE, and a number of carriers around the world.
So how do Firefox OS and the ZTE Open stack up against incredibly fierce competition from Microsoft, Nokia, Google and Samsung? Read on to find out.
Note that I’ve broken this review in two sections, the first dealing with the OS itself with the second being reserved for ZTE’s hardware.
Design and Navigation
If you’re expecting anything new or radically different from Firefox OS I’m sorry to say you’ll be quite disappointed. Instead of taking risks Mozilla chose to be quite conservative in the design department and stuck to the “grid-of-icons” model that was popularised by Apple and quickly copied by Google with Android. In fact, Firefox OS looks so much like previous versions of Google’s own mobile progeny that you can easily forget this is actually a brand new operating system.
The phone greets you with a simple lock screen that can display some notifications, the date and time, and your wallpaper. From here you can either unlock your phone or go directly to the camera to snap a pic.
Next you’ll see a very predictable home screen coupled with a bottom row of icons for quick access to the phone’s basic functions. The cleanness of the home screen, where users can’t pin app shortcuts, is quite refreshing at first. However, this gets old really fast when you have to constantly swipe to find your favourite app instead of being able to pin it directly wherever you want. Long-pressing on the home screen allows users to change their wallpaper with photos from the gallery.
The Home Screen an the Grid of Apps
The bottom row of icons includes the Phone and Messaging apps as well as the Firefox Browser, access to the Camera and a Radio app that’s only usable with a connected headset. Having five icons instead of four creates a very weird aesthetic, as the icon of the last app is always partially off-screen. Users can also scroll through this row which would make a lot of sense if you could add or remove apps from this quick-access drawer, but you can’t, which makes scrolling and the fifth icon look daft.
Swiping left on the home screen takes you to your apps which, as discussed previously, are arranged in a grid of icons similar to iOS and Android. Long pressing on such an icon allows you to delete it or to move it around, exactly like iOS.
In lieu of any interesting UI choices, Mozilla has opted to take the giant risk of making the icons round, which might, obviously, shock and confuse some users. Unfortunately, even this isn’t consistent. All system apps have rounded icons while the downloaded Facebook app is a square and the Twitter app uses just the logo so it’s in the shape of the blue birdie. Meanwhile Cut the Rope uses the same rounded corner icon it has on iOS. So in the end it’s something of a mess, with a range of different design ideas and standards.
If you continue to swipe left you’re taken to additional screens of apps. Anybody used to Android or iOS will feel right at home.
Now, swiping right on your home screen takes you to the Search page and this is where we find Firefox’s biggest differentiatior. They have thought out and engineered search to be a very important part of how you use and experience the OS.
The search integration in FF OS - an important asset
On top, users find a blank search bar where they can input their queries. Below, there are rows of categories of items that you can search for like Music, Shopping, Financial News, Social, etc. Finally you can also see an extended list of these categories by hitting the More icon.
Choosing a category, such as Social, will bring up a list of web apps for this category. Currently Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and Tumblr are the top apps that appear. A user can then open up his app of choice or pin it to one of the app pages for later use.
Searching for a term without selecting a category brings up a multitude of choices and a user can then pick and choose what is needed. For example, searching for “The Beatles” brings up Grooveshark, Youtube, SoundClound, but it also brings up Wikipedia, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter; selecting one of these apps opens it up and performs a search query with your term – in this case showing me everything that’s going on on Twitter regarding #thebeatles.
This way to search through apps can be super powerful and very helpful; it’s probably the best feature of Firefox OS. Unfortunately this is where the good part ends because relying on web apps and HTML usually reads great on paper but ends up disappointing in the real world, and Mozilla’s project is no exception.
Apps and Web apps
Web apps have been something of an obsession for tech companies during the past few years with everybody jumping on board and then usually jumping off again. Web apps developed around HTML5 and web standards held the magical promise that companies could code something once and then run it on any internet connected device, regardless of manufacturer, OS, version, etc.
Unfortunately due to the basic precept that these apps should run everywhere and due to their reliance on HTML instead of native code, web apps end up being far inferior to regular apps especially from a user experience point of view - and this clearly shows in Firefox OS.
The way the OS is currently built, users are supposed to mainly rely on these web apps to get stuff done. Whether they “install” them through the Marketplace or via the Search Pane, users have to rely on these faux apps.
But most of these apps are simple wrappers around the mobile website of different companies. The Facebook app for example, is little more than simply hitting up m.facebook.com in a separate wrapper. Same goes for Twitter and most other apps I’ve tried. Occasionally they’re optimized to look a little better on your device but that’s pretty much the only difference.
The official app Marketplace
While using mobile versions of websites may bring many features, performance is quite dreadful and lack of proper internet connectivity makes things that much worse. In a world where even proper apps that are not natively coded have a tough time impressing anyone – here’s looking at you, Windows Phone 7 apps – having what basically amounts to shortcuts to mobile sites and touting those as usable 'apps' is simply not acceptable.
What may confuse users even more is that folks can download proper offline-usable apps in the Marketplace. However it’s pretty much a game of chance as to whether what you’re downloading is a decent, usable app or just another mobile website. Games are a decent example here, the few that I’ve found being “regular” apps and working as well as can be expected on such a low-end device as the ZTE Open.
As opposed to downloadable apps which are optional, system apps are the ones that come preinstalled on the phone and can’t be deleted. These control the phone’s basic functions so it’s extremely important that they work well and have decent functionality.
Firefox OS comes with the same basic apps as any other phone such as the Phone app, Messaging, Contacts, E-mail, Calendar, a Camera app, Gallery, a music player, the Firefox browser, the Marketplace, a clock and a note taking app. It also comes with some interesting extras such as a Video player, a Radio app, a data usage app simply called Usage, Nokia's HERE Maps and Accuweather. None of these can be deleted or changed so I’m considering them to be basic system apps.
The Calendar and an often encountered FB error
The phone and messaging apps work exactly as you’d expect and there’s nothing surprising about them; they are neither good nor bad.
The contacts app is somewhat bare-bones though it does its job well. You can import contacts from your SIM card much as you can on any other OS. You can even import friends and info from Facebook, or at least the OS tells me I can; I was never actually able to do it. Whenever I try to integrate Facebook contacts I always get the same “Invalid App ID “ error.
The e-mail app is nothing special either. It does support multiple accounts which can be set-up quite easily, whether they’re for a popular service such as Outlook - where the app pulls the configuration info and you need to only add in your address and password - or they need to be setup manually.
Unfortunately multiple accounts doesn’t also mean a unified inbox so users still have to check every account manually to see if they’ve got unread messages. Message threading is another basic feature that seems to be missing from this app with every e-mail showing up individually.
These are features that other operating systems have had for a long time, so it’s very frustrating that Mozilla couldn't get this right on its first try.
Another thing that’s definitely a minus for users is the fact that many apps - most apps, in fact - don’t work at all on devices with little internal memory, unless you plug in a memory card. So on this ZTE Open, that comes with very limited internal memory, I couldn’t use most of the phone’s functions including the camera and gallery apps, or the music and video players. Of course this wouldn’t be a problem on higher end devices but it does severely limit your out-of-box experience with a low-end handset.
The rest of the apps have nothing special either. Calendar works as well as you’d expect a basic calendar app to function. It even integrates with other calendars such as your Gmail one, and it works decently, but there’s nothing outstanding about it.
The camera app on the left and the Gallery app on the right
The camera and gallery apps are also limited and offer little more than the most basic functions: taking pictures and video, and reviewing them afterwards. There are no preferences to select, or levels to set or any type of advanced setting. The Gallery app makes up for this, but just a bit, offering some filters, effect and brightness settings. You can also share photos or clips to social media or via e-mail and Bluetooth.
It’s still a very basic experience for such an app and considering the vast strides other platforms have been making in the photography department this bare-bones approach is certain to disappoint users.
Finally there’s the browser – arguably the keystone of the whole Firefox OS. I was hoping this would end up being a stellar experience but the whole thing falls short. Don’t get me wrong - Firefox has the potential to be a great browser, but so far it’s lacking almost all of the good features that you find in the Android and desktop versions.
This browser works well in terms of rendering, switching between tabs and browsing websites, but that’s pretty much all it can do. There’s no desktop sync and there are no advanced features. Sure, you can search for something just by typing it in the address bar but you can’t even select your search provider, with the browser always defaulting to Google.
The good part is that the browser seemed very snappy for the most part, working better and faster than most other apps I’ve tried, which shows how well it’s been optimized for low-end devices. In-app navigation also seemed to work well and the swipe gesture used to close tabs makes for really fast and efficient page management.
Unfortunately this browser, alongside all the other apps that come pre-installed in FFOS, offers very little to the discerning consumers that know they would've actually got a better Firefox experience on any Android handset.
The way I experienced Firefox OS has no doubt skewed my view on its performance, because I’ve only used the nascent OS on a very low-end device with limited computing power and resources. As such many actions and commands that one would expect to be instantaneous on a smartphone, had delayed responses and weird stutters. However I am giving FF and Mozilla the benefit of the doubt here and I’ll chuck all of those up to ZTE’s crappy cheap hardware.
There are however instances when the OS is clearly lagging or creating problems and those can’t be ignored.
First of all, scrolling is absolutely horrible in the OS. There’s a very weird inertial scrolling effect that seems to be turned up to 11 and it makes going through long lists or texts a nightmare, especially when you’re trying to focus on a single line. The really weird part is that this is never consistent with some part of the OS exhibiting this behavior, while others don’t.
And what gets me mad is that apps don’t suffer from this at all. Twitter and Facebook - apps that have, at times, seen their own share of scrolling problems on other platforms - work just fine. In fact, almost any app, including the Firefox browser, works just fine in this regard, but the basic OS doesn’t.
Then there are some really weird stutters due to the OS constantly trying to interpret your touch as a command to open something. Again, this is most evident in lists, especially the Settings list, where just by scrolling around you end up modifying settings because the OS thinks you’re trying to select instead of scroll.
Finally, there's the keyboard. While it’s true that I’ve used worse keyboards – hello, Android 2.0 – this has to be in the top-five worst on-screen keyboards of all time. The good news here is that the problems don’t stem from weird hit-boxes around the letters but rather from simple lag. This being the case, I’m sure Mozilla will fix this in the near future - but until then, try not to do too much typing on a Firefox OS handset.
And speaking of the near future I’m sad to say that even though Firefox OS 1.1 is already out for OEMs, this device has yet to receive the update. Why is that important? Because besides the usual bug fixes, added features and the like, FFOS 1.1 also brings support for third party notifications.
Yes you read that right: as it currently stands, Firefox OS has a pretty decent notification center but no actual notifications. That’s partially because of the fact that most apps are web-apps, but it’s also because Mozilla considered that having notifications is not a high priority in the grand scheme of things. And I’m going to be calling this “a reverse Microsoft” from now on.
I’m going to be as frank as I can here: this OS shouldn’t exist. I’m a big fan of Mozilla and Firefox but I also have to be realistic and take a look at the bigger picture. Firefox OS is so far behind the competition that there is simply no conceivable way for it to catch up and become relevant. Then there's the fact that it behaves quite poorly on low-end device and lest we forget this OS's raison d'etre was to offer a good alternative to Android on the low-end of the market.
Whether you define it as a free OS, a low-end OS, a developing market OS, there’s already something out there that’s better, faster, with more support behind it and already selling handsets. Android fills all those roles mentioned above, and it does it well especially at the higher-end, which Firefox OS can't begin to compete with. Meanwhile, Windows Phone is seeing explosive growth in the low-end where it’s bringing a premium experience through Nokia devices. Add the other five or ten open-source, side-project, just-a-hobby mobile operating systems out there, and there’s very little room for one more, even if it is from a big name like Mozilla.
There’s only one role that FF OS fills and that’s as an OS for enthusiasts. It’s developed by dedicated people and has an adoring fan base, and that may be its lifeline for the foreseeable future. But a fan OS is very far from a commercially viable OS, and the way things are looking, Mozilla’s pet project will never be able to make that jump unless something radical changes.