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HTML5-based mobile operating systems may change the face of mobile marketing

Mozilla?s HTML5-based mobile operating system leaped ahead this week thanks to support from a handful of wireless carriers. For marketers, the news has the potential to bring more cost-conscious consumers into the smartphone market and unlock new opportunities.

One of the main attractions of a mobile operating system such as Firefox that is built on HTML5 is that it enables the development of smartphones that function at nearly the same level as some of the high-end options currently in the market but at a much lower cost. Such lower-cost devices could be attractive to feature phone owners who are considering whether or not to upgrade.

?Carriers are picking up on the HTML5 based OS because it is fundamentally going to allow for cheaper handsets to be produced,? said Michael Morgan, analyst at ABI Research, New York. ?It may be a third OS that is not as closed as iOS or Android that would give them more control over the device.?

?Brands will get a larger smartphone base to address in their marketing and advertising,? he said. ?It will be more of a mass market, general market consumer where price matters more to them.

?These are now what you would call your early adopters.?

App marketing
HTML5 technology offers app-like experiences in a mobile Web environment and has been quickly gaining traction in the mobile space.

While other mobile operating systems are incorporating HTML5 technology as they go along, Firefox, along with Tizen, are the first to build mobile platforms on HTML5 from the ground up. This means that all of the phone features, including calling, messaging, games and more can be an HTML5 application.

In addition to enabling marketers to reach a broader audience, an HTML5-based mobile OS could also open up new marketing opportunities for app developers and marketers looking to reach app users.

?With HTML5 you may not be required to work through the pre-established app engine and can say to a mobile user, ?I?m not rated on the Apple App Store but I am out there for you to download,? Mr. Morgan said.

?This means they would have to find their own ways to get discovered but they wouldn?t be limited to best practices as deemed by an app store,? he said.

Another possiblity is the potential for marketers to create fully branded mobile phone experpiences that come directly from an advertiser.

"Once fully rolled out, Firefox OS will probably be the most feasible platform for that strategy, economically and politically," said Brennan Hayden, vice president of WDA, East Lansing, MI.

"I don?t have any knowledge that such a thing is being considered, but a brand such as Coca-Cola, for example, might see a deeply branded mobile experience using Firefox less complicated than with Android. Truly free and open ? with no asterisks ? might give rise to such a market," he said.

For carriers, a Firefox phone could help them drive further smartphone adoption in developing markets by being able to offer a richer user experience in a lower-cost smartphone,

An HTML5-based mobile OS such as Firefox could also help carriers gain more control over services and applications. Carriers have been losing money in mobile as consumers increasingly engage with over-the-top services and applications.

?Business models are evolving so that operators are increasingly cut out of the profits on services, which have evolved from being network-centric to network-agnostic,? said Wally Swain, senior vice president of research at Yankee Group, Boston.

?By controlling or at least having high leverage over a platform, you can bet that apps will have to be bought on their stores, that they will participate in revenue sharing etc,? he said.

The third OS
Carriers are also looking for a viable third mobile operating system to bring more competition into the marketplace.

?Operators are desperate for someone to break the current stranglehold that Apple and Android have on the smartphone market,? Mr. Swain said.

?Operators want a counter-balance so they can have more leverage when it comes to negotiating prices,? he said. ?Lower prices are always good for consumers.

?They also want more control of the platform. Apple pays no attention to operators wants/needs, Android about the same.?

The news comes at a time when BlackBerry continues to lose market share ? a trend that is expected to continue now that Research In Motion has delayed the release of its new BlackBerry operating system until next year ? while Windows Phone 7 and Windows Phone 8 have yet to catch on in any meaningful way.

More support needed
The carriers who have expressed support for the Firefox mobile OS are Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Smart, Sprint, Telecom Italia, Telefonica and Telenor.

Mozilla said this week that the first devices featuring Firefox OS will be manufactured by TCL Communication Technology, under the Alcatel One Touch brand, and ZTE. The first Firefox OS powered devices are expected to launch commercially in Brazil in early 2013 through Telefonica?s Vivo brand.

The ZTE and TCL devices will likely be priced between $100 and $150 at retail or in prepaid and will be free with a contract from a carrier, per Mr. Swain.

Firefox will need the support of manufacturers, too, if it is to become a viable player in the mobile space. While it already has support from ZTE and TCL, others will likely wait to see how these initial devices perform before getting behind Firefox.

One of the challenges Mozilla will face is building consumer awareness of the Firefox brand.

?I think marketing this device will be challenging,? Mr. Swain said. ?Branding will be the issue.

?ZTE and HTC are not strong enough on their own,? he said. ?Nor is Firefox, nor are operators on their own.

?They will have to be at the low end of the range to gain mindshare.?

Final Take
Chantal Tode is associate editor on Mobile Marketer, New York