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Cheap Mozilla Phone Faces Steep Challenges

Mobile World Congress 2012This week at Mobile World Congress, Mozilla made a stunning announcement. They proposed a fully browser-based, app-less cell phone running on a small Linux kernel.  It would run entirely on HTML5 giving the illusion of apps, while running entirely in a browser.

What's more, Networkworld reports that partner Spanish cell phone maker Telefonica Digital claims it can bring a phone running the Mozilla approach to market for 1/10th the cost of an iPhone. It's not clear if Telefonica means a subsidized iPhone or an unlocked one, so at the low end that would mean it would be producing a $20 cell phone, at the high end one for around $65.

Either way, it's a considerable challenge, one that Glenn Gruber, who is AVP for mobile solutions at Ness, is dubious that Telefonica Digital can pull off -- at least if it hopes to build a phone anywhere close to similar quality.

"This is not the first time someone came up with a plan to bring awesome computing power to users for no money. Unfortunately, no one has ever really succeeded in that effort," Gruber said.

Gruber points out first of all that when iSuppli did a tear-down of the iPhone 4, it found it cost $188 just for the parts. That didn't include manufacturing costs or any other related costs. That means if Telefonica Digital hoped to produce a phone of equal value, even with a proposed partnership with Qualcomm to produce a cheaper chip, it would face a steep challenge.

The Networkworld article reports that Telefonica Digital demonstrated the Mozilla approach on an Samsung Galaxy S2 stripped of Android. If you look at a similar Android phone, an HTC Thunderbolt, iSuppli reported it cost $262 in parts including almost $40 to make it LTE compatible, the highest cost of any iSuppli tear-down up to that point (July, 2011).

Gruber openly wonders how it would be possible to produce a decent phone for under $100, even with Mozilla's approach -- even if you took out the 4G parts (which he suggests isn't wise). As he said, " For one, Android has ZERO cost for handset manufacturers, so you can’t say that the cost of the OS is the problem." So where do you get the savings? He doesn't see it.

"Hardware costs are what they are," Gruber said. "You can’t demonstrate the performance of the Mozilla OS on a Samsung Galaxy S2, which has hundreds of dollars of hardware for class-leading CPU, 3G/4G chipsets, displays, memory and believe that it’s possible to deliver that same level of hardware for $20."

And Gruber says research has shown that there are dramatic variations in quality across Android phones from high end to low end. "The performance differences based on hardware show up today across the current crop of Android phones. The mobile web experience/performance that you get from a free phone and what you get from a Samsung Galaxy Nexus SII is wildly different," he said.

All that being said, the idea of a fully browser-based phone is an intriguing one. It's just not clear that given the fixed costs of decent hardware parts that it's going to be possible to drive down the prices of phones any more than Android, a free operating system, already has.

Photo by kiwanja on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons License
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