Hands-on: Telefonica's $90 Firefox phone

The ZTE Open goes on sale this week at an attractive price, so what's it like?

After several months of anticipation, the first phones based on the Firefox operating system are here. Telefónica will begin selling the ZTE Open on Tuesday in Spain as the first step of a global rollout that should see Firefox OS devices available in all the carrier's markets by the end of next year.

Running Firefox OS on the Alcatel One Touch Fire handset
Running Firefox OS on the Alcatel One Touch Fire handset

Mozilla says the phone is targeted at first-time smartphone users -- people who are still using feature phones because they haven't had the money or seen the need to switch to a smartphone. Telefónica's launch price of €69 (US$90) potentially makes the ZTE Open a serious competitor for the attention of such users, but what can they expect from the handset?

On Monday in San Francisco, Mozilla gave reporters a brief chance to try out the production version of the phone and the Alcatel OneTouch Fire, a second Firefox OS-based handset.

The basic user interface is quite similar to that of Android or Apple's iPhone. Applications are arranged on a grid that can be scrolled left or right to reveal more software. Along the bottom of the main screen are four main function buttons. They can be customized but by default are: phone calls, text messages, browser and email.

Homescreen icons on Firefox OS
Homescreen icons on Firefox OS

The handsets available on Monday had already been set up, but fresh-out-of-the-box phones will present users with a simple guide when first switched on. Mozilla said it provides a brief introduction to the phone and presents an early chance to import Facebook contacts and set up email. That gives users an immediate ability to contact friends and communicate when they start using the handset.

The pre-installed system apps on Firefox OS include most things you'd expect, including a camera app, photo gallery, calculator, address book, music player, video player and an FM radio app, if supported by hardware. The phones used on Monday also included several third-party apps: Twitter, Facebook, Nokia Here maps, Wikipedia, Accu Weather and a game called Poppit.

Firefox OS home screen
Firefox OS home screen

For other apps, there's the Firefox Marketplace. You can access it from a Web browser to see what's available. The selection of apps isn't anywhere near as large or complete as available for Apple or Android platforms, but that's common with a new operating system. One of Mozilla's biggest challenges going forward is getting developers on board.

On the hardware side, both phones didn't have the large, bright displays or demonstrate some of the speedy response of the latest high-end smartphones, but consumers shouldn't expect them to. As entry-level handsets, a better comparison would be the myriad of low-end phones that typically run Android 2.3 Gingerbread.

The Firefox OS dialer
The Firefox OS dialer

Against those, it does well. The phone didn't seem to lag or slow down with use during my short test. Applications launched relatively quickly and the touchscreen was quite responsive. A few times I ended up in places I didn't mean to go, either because the screen was a little too sensitive or because I tried to scroll the screen just as a button appeared under my finger.

Of the two phones, I preferred the Alcatel One Touch Fire, partly due to its more rectangular form that I found more stylish than the rounder ZTE Open, but that's a personal preference.

Firefox OS marketplace
Firefox OS marketplace

Based on my few minutes with the phones, I think Firefox has a chance to attract some of those first-time smartphone users it's targeting. But as Microsoft and BlackBerry have recently discovered, getting all of the major apps on your platform will be important to success. The current app selection might be fine for users just starting out on smartphones, but it will get frustrating fast if they continually see apps on the phones of friends or in the media that they can't run.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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