Review: Firefox OS sputters on the ZTE Open

The open source challenger is meant to be simple, but it crosses the line into the less than functional

As Microsoft's Windows Phone flails and BlackBerry 10 sputters, the smartphone market seems increasingly a two-horse town: Google's Android and Apple's iOS. But the open source world is hoping to provide a simpler option to reach the mass market, especially in poorer nations where high-end mobile platforms are out of most people's reach.

There's Nokia's Asha platform, but its OS is proprietary. Plenty of very low-cost Android phones are also available, but Android is not open source, as there is no community development aspect to the freely available software. Linux stalwart Canonical is working on its truly open source Ubuntu Touch, but it's still in beta. If you want an inexpensive open source smartphone today, your only choice is the ZTE Open, based on Mozilla's Firefox OS.

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Firefox OS's user interface is very much like that of iOS. The app screen works the same way, and there's a dock for frequently used apps. Even deleting apps works like in iOS: Tap and hold an app's icon and the X-in-a-circle indicator appears so that you can delete unwanted apps. The Home button closes apps and opens the app screen. You'll also see the iOS-like scrollwheel interface for picking dates and time. (Interestingly enough, the browser's Top Sites feature is like Mac Safari's -- clearly, the folks at Mozilla took their UI cues from Apple.) Firefox OS should be familiar to anyone who's used an iPhone but can't afford one or refuses to go proprietary.

There are of course differences. The notifications bar works like a cross between Android's and the new one in iOS 7 that Apple has demoed widely. Swiping to the leftmost screen opens not the search bar for your device but for the Firefox app store.

All in all, the Firefox OS hangs together sensibly. It's less sophisticated than the beta Ubuntu Touch OS but serviceable.

However, the Firefox OS shows way too many rough edges once you start using applications, and the very cheap hardware from Chinese manufacturer ZTE doesn't help either: The touchscreen is not very responsive, for example, so device interactions are difficult. Good luck typing in complex passwords! And boy, is the device slow, even for simple tasks like opening emails. Don't expect to finish every action; trying again is part of the experience.

But the cheap hardware isn't solely to blame. The HTML5 software that comes with Firefox OS, as well as the very limited set of apps in the app store, reinforce the notion that you can't do serious apps in HTML. Whether the fault lies with HTML or with the developers, the result is a smartphone that is not smart and is barely better than the so-called feature phones intended to provide only a modicum of functionality.

For example, no Firefox OS app that I tested supports text selection or copying. Then again, no apps I tested supported text selection or copying. All you can do is tap where you want the cursor location to be, then add text or backspace to delete text one character at a time -- seriously.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Hardware (10.0%)
Security and management (20.0%)
Application support (15.0%)
Usability (15.0%)
Web and Internet support (20.0%)
Business connectivity (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
ZTE Open 5.0 5.0 5.0 7.0 7.0 5.0 5.7
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