According to the latest IDC numbers, Android took a whopping 79.3% share of smartphones shipped in the second quarter with iOS managing 13.2%. Common wisdom holds that third place is the critical spot — carriers want a strong alternative to keep the top two platforms from gaining too much power. Drop below third place, though, and the future is bleak with shelf space and visibility becoming much tougher to pull off.
Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows Phone has officially wrested that coveted third place spot from BlackBerry (BBRY), which has now dropped below 3% market share. However, the battle for third may turn into a three-way fight. It’s possible that Windows and BlackBerry could be facing a challenge from another alternative — Firefox OS.
But wait, isn’t Firefox a web browser?
Yes it is. Firefox the web browser is a free, open-source product developed and maintained by Mozilla, a nonprofit organization. Firefox started at zero marketshare in 2002 (when it was released as “Firebird”) to challenge Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which commanded nearly 94% of global web browsing traffic at the time. Firefox’s web browser now holds more than 20% market share, despite competition from Google’s Chrome and Apple’s Safari web browsers.
When Mozilla made the decision to release a Firefox mobile operating system for smartphones — Firefox OS — the news was a blip on the radar in North America, at least outside of the software development community. However, it’s entirely possible that Firefox OS might just show up on that next IDC report thanks to a confluence of factors.
First, mobile carriers are tiring of paying costly subsidies to carry the latest Android smartphones and iPhones. Ending the Android/iOS stranglehold is held up as a key way to lower smartphone prices and break that pattern.
Second, in emerging markets, a mobile platform that eschews a closed-app ecosystem (like Google Play and Apple’s App Store) for an open, web-based one has appeal for a customer base not yet invested in those proprietary apps. Firefox OS leverages its use of open standards like HTML 5 to offer users web apps that can be used even on competing platforms by running the Firefox browser.
With Western smartphone markets maturing, the biggest potential gains in market share are found in these emerging markets. That’s why Apple is scrambling to be competitive in China, and why BlackBerry points to Latin America as a core market.
With smartphone penetration at just 16%, Latin America is a perfect spot for Firefox OS to establish a beach head. And that’s what is happening, thanks to Spain’s Telefonica (TEF) which is launching Firefox phones in Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil. Besides the Latin America launches, Telefonica is already selling Firefox OS smartphones in Spain. Deutsche Telecom (DTEGY) began selling them in Poland in July, announcing that the devices will be available in Germany, Hungary and Greece this fall.