How it unfolded
2012: I’m sitting with some people from Mozilla and they are all so excited about their dream, a $25 smartphone, that they keep interrupting each other and I can make no sense of the meeting. I dismiss it as one more group with their heart in the right place and their brains all over the place!
2013: I’m shown some Firefox phones and a roadmap of how these phones will change the world. They will mainly be for the developing world, and India would be a key market. I play around with the phones and dismiss them again as they are sluggish and frankly, terrible to look at.
2014: I’m given a proper ‘ready for the market’ Firefox phone priced at about $25 to play around with at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The phones are very well built, the OS is smooth and the experience is good. I am changing my mind, but I’m sceptical about the $25 price.
August 2014: Two companies in India will launch the Firefox phone: Spice and Intex. Each is moving fast to announce that they are the first, each is selling around the $25 mark, each claims that they have the better product. The Firefox Firefight has begun.
A critical dream
To price a smartphone even lower than a feature phone has been the dream for most companies, and especially for the mobile phone industry. To empower the next billion users to truly use a phone for more than voice calls, to get them all online, to give them true connectivity and information, that was the promise ever since the dawn of mobile phones.
Now, with these two phones, we may be closer to this amazing revolution. But for that to happen, these phones must be really good and not suck, like some of the other economy smartphones do.
Mozilla took a different tack on how a smartphone could work, how the OS operates and how a user gets to use the full potential of being always on and always connected.
I’m going to spare you the boring tech gobbledegook and just let you absorb a single sentence: Think of it as a phone that is basically just a Web browser, within which reside multiple apps and services. While it has a familiar icon-based look and feel, it’s basically just HTML 5 and a webcode for everything that it executes. Even for initiating a voice phone call, it is just the same code running to make sure you can dial a number and get connected.
Thus, almost any website can be turned into a modified app for the phone very easily. The OS doesn’t need any expensive hardware to run either; it demands very little from the processor, battery life is enhanced too and overall it’s all nice and smooth. It does mean though that you need to be online at all times. But you don’t need a blazing fast 3G or 4G connection – even normal 2G is good enough. That’s the theory, now, for the real-life grind.
Spice Fire One Mi–FX 1
Apart from the rather long name, the Spice phone also has a long list of features and freebies. This is a 3.5-inch phone, dual sim, has a 1GHz processor, 2.5G connectivity, WiFi and Bluetooth, a 2MP back camera plus a 1.3MP front camera.
In the box is a free silicon cover and a free offer for 1500MB data from Aircel. It also comes with Single Window Search, Adaptive App Search, Hindi, Tamil and Bangla language support, Facebook, Twitter and Connect A2 (a WhatsApp connect app). The phone is well built and solid, and the touch response on the screen is good. All of this is priced at Rs 2,299.
Intex Cloud FX
This one has pretty similar specs to the Spice Firefox phone, not surprising as both are based on a Mozilla reference design for its $25 Firefox platform. This too has a 3.5-inch display, a 1GHz processor, a 2MP rear camera, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity and most of what the other phone has. The phone fits well in the hand and feels robust. Intex has priced this just under Rs 2,000.
Should you buy one?
Surprisingly, I’m going with a very enthusiastic yes. It’s not that I had set my expectations very low. Rather, I was more than happy to dismiss these as a terrible idea executed poorly. These two phones are nothing like that.
If you’ve been using a feature phone, if you want something that is simple and idiot-proof, if you’re overwhelmed by the daunting learning curve of any other smartphone OS, if your demands from a phone aren’t too complex, if you want something that is small and easy to pocket, if there is someone in the family who wants big icons and a phone they can get started with in less than a minute, if the need is for something that runs well and doesn’t need a rocket science degree to get started with – then this could be your best bet.
It’s out in more than 17 countries now. And more importantly, this will be one more salvo in getting prices of overpriced smartphones slashed.
Up next will be an Android and a Windows phone that will try and match these prices and, in retaliation the next generation Firefox phone may come down even lower, to a price of about Rs 1,299.
Who knows, this may even spawn an iPhone for Rs 999. Okay, maybe I’m getting carried away with my dreams – but then that’s exactly what the $25 Firefox phone was just two years back!
Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3
From HT Brunch, August 24
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