Mozilla is best known for its popular Firefox Web browser. But for the past four years, the company has been working on a smartphone and tablet platform called Firefox OS. The fruits of that labour have now arrived in South Africa, via MTN and phone maker Alcatel.
The Alcatel One Touch Fire E smartphone – recommended retail price R1 600 through MTN – is the first Firefox OS smartphone to arrive on South African shores. It’s coming into a market already crowded with low-cost Android- and Windows Phone-powered smartphones and, unfortunately, it does not fare well.
The problem is not so much the low-end hardware, but rather the operating system, which lacks many of the key applications users have come to expect, including cornerstone apps such as WhatsApp and Gmail.
The phone itself is slim and good looking (dare we call it foxy?), with a distinctive circle-shaped home button at the bottom of the 4,5-inch, 540×960-pixel IPS LCD. Looking remarkably like an old iPhone, the Fire E has a dual-core 1,2GHz processor, internal storage of 4GB (expandable using SD cards by up to 32GB), 512MB of RAM and a 1 700mAh non-removable battery.
There’s a distinctly pedestrian 5-megapixel camera with LED flash (a low-end VGA camera graces the front), along with accelerometer, assisted GPS, proximity sensor and digital compass. Cellular network data modes are 2G and 3G HSPA, and Wi-Fi (802.11 b/g/n) is supported. Not bad for a device that costs just R1 600.
Unfortunately, the software that powers the phone lets down what would otherwise have been a respectable entry level smartphone.
The Linux-based Firefox OS — our review phone was running version 2.0 — doesn’t look or feel like finished software. Its rows of icons don’t look terrible, but the software is not nearly as refined as Android or Windows. And it’s a little sluggish on the bare-bones hardware.
There’s an Android-like notifications centre that appears when you slide your finger down from the top of the screen. This provides buttons to quickly switch on and off services like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Sliding a finger left on the lock screen brings up the camera app and a right swipe unlocks the screen.
Bundled apps include Nokia’s excellent Here Maps. There are a few local apps too, including News24 (which seems to have a strategy of developing for every platform under the sun), EWN (a news app from Primedia) and PriceCheck (a Naspers-owned price comparison app). An app for online fashion retailer Zando is also bundled, which seems odd on a low-end phone aimed at the mass market.
MTN has bundled its own app, myMTNza, which allows users to check their airtime balance and load Internet and SMS bundles. Facebook and Twitter also come preinstalled.
System apps include Contacts (which can be imported from Gmail), Gallery, Calculator, Calendar, Clock, FM Radio, Music, E-Mail (with POP3, IMAP and ActiveSync support), File Manager and Flashlight (which switches on the LED light for use in the dark).
Uninstalling apps is easy and similar to the iPhone. Long-pressing its icon allows you to move it around or to uninstall it by pressing a small red ‘x’. Apps can be installed through the Firefox OS Marketplace.
The big problem is that there are big gaps in the store. While some popular apps are available, including – rather interestingly — Microsoft’s Outlook.com, apps that people use every day, like Instagram and banking apps, are not.
A lack of apps on Windows Phone has long been one of the biggest handicaps of the Microsoft platform – though the situation has improved markedly in recent years. The lack of developer support for Firefox OS is similarly going to hobble the platform.
The challenge for Mozilla – and for operators planning to sell the Firefox OS smartphones – is convincing consumers to consider them as an alternative to the rich ecosystem offered by low-end Android equivalents. Even Windows Phone is becoming a more diverse offering, with a growing number of apps.
On the basis of the ecosystem, it’s hard to recommend the One Touch Fire E. Consumers at this price point would do well to consider a cheap Lumia phone from Microsoft or one of the plethora of Android alternatives. — © 2015 NewsCentral Media