Here’s something which shouldn’t come as a surprise, I like playing around with smartphones. I know, shocking for someone who writes about them. I wouldn’t say I’m addicted, but then addicts rarely understand they have a problem. Ask my significant other, and she’d probably tell you something very different. It was with considerable excitement, then, I unwrapped the ZTE Open a month or so ago, ready to snort some Firefox OS and enjoy the rush of discovering a brand new mobile OS. Unfortunately, instead of weeks filled with psychedelic wonder, the Open was so unpleasant that it forced me to go cold turkey. Yes, I did the unthinkable. After a while I tried to avoid using the phone entirely.
Designed to take on Android
Before we get into it, here’s a quick memory refresher on the pair. The Open is one of the first, widely-ish available smartphones running Mozilla’s new mobile OS, which is optimistically being pushed as an alternative to Android. The operating system is backed by networks such as Telefonica, and manufacturers like ZTE and LG, with the hardware primarily aimed at the low-cost end of the market.
So, what could possibly drive me to kick my smartphone habit? Well, it’s important to say it’s not solely Firefox OS’s fault; ZTE’s hardware should also take some of the blame. On the surface, Firefox OS looks and functions a lot like Android. You have a basic home screen with a few shortcuts to the dialer, email and messages, plus a pull down notification drawer. Swipe to the left and you’ll find icons for all the installed applications; swipe to the right and it takes you to the Adaptive Search page.
This is the heart of Firefox OS – where you search for apps. Except what you get aren’t really apps because Firefox OS is designed to move away from the app structure with which we’re familiar. Instead Firefox OS uses the HTML5 open Web standard, where apps as we know them don’t exist, and dynamic platform agnostic programs take their place. However, Mozilla also has an app store called the Firefox Marketplace, so the phone effectively has two app stores. Not only is this confusing to newcomers, but it’s also a knock against the supposed convenience of HTML5 apps.
Setting up my frustration
Right, so I have in front of me an unspoiled phone, ready to be manipulated to my liking. That means adding contacts, setting up email, and downloading everyday apps.
Step 1, add contacts: It’s easy, if they’re stored on your SIM card or in Facebook, but impossible if they’re anywhere else.
Step 2, set up email: Email is similarly simple, provided you only have a Gmail, Yahoo or another web-based account. Annoyingly, there’s the option to add IMAP accounts, but after several failed attempts to set one up, I Googled for advice and found it doesn’t work yet. Thanks for that, Mozilla. I would have preferred it to be left out until it was ready, so I didn’t waste my time.
I’m sure there are good games out there somewhere, but there are many which would be an embarrassment on a “10,000 Great Games” CD for Windows 95.
So, this supposedly modern smartphone OS had so far made me manually enter contacts, didn’t let me see all my emails, and the first app I downloaded didn’t work properly. Time to try something else … what about wallpaper? Checking and changing them involves scrolling around the menus, which presents problems of its own.
Keyboard and scrolling problems, but at least Cut the Rope is there
Bizarrely, scrolling and finding new wallpaper on the ZTE Open requires you to learn a new skill. Flicking through lists is awkwardly random, as the scrolling never stops where you expect. You end up having to tap the screen in anticipation of where you need it to stop, because if you get it wrong, you end up flicking around just to get it to stay still. It’s maddening. Adding my own wallpaper using Bluetooth was easy though, and it connected to my MacBook more reliably than my iPhone.
Despite the Twitter app experience being poor, I tried a few other apps. I’m sure there are good games out there somewhere, but there are many which would be an embarrassment on a “10,000 Great Games” CD for Windows 95. I did find Cut the Rope, but when that downloaded it was simply a file directory, and only thanks to reading the reviews did I find the right file to start the app. Surprisingly, given the ZTE Open’s wheezing 1GHz single-core processor and the feeble 256MB of RAM, the game didn’t choke and was perfectly playable.
This spurred me on, and determined not to give up with Firefox OS, I persevered with the ZTE Open as my only phone for a month. Yes, four long weeks. As time went on, more idiosyncrasies emerged. It has Nokia’s Here Maps as standard, which is fine for walking directions, but useless for driving because it doesn’t provide turn-by-turn navigation. Messaging was painfully slow because there’s no auto-correct, and the edges of the keyboard never seemed correctly aligned, so I was endlessly tapping L instead of K. Friends simply had to get used to me telling them “OL” as I usually gave up trying to type a K after the third try.
Firefox OS 1.1 wasn’t my savior either
Halfway through my four week sentence, I found myself not wanting to take the ZTE Open out of my bag. A message that would normally take seconds to write on Android would take minutes on the Open, so I didn’t bother. My replies were so short that people must have thought I was paying by the character. Although the combination of the excellent Firefox browser and a 3G connection has potential, the phone’s too damn slow to take advantage of it.
I thought life was about to change when I read about Firefox OS 1.1. The update had notifications, auto-correct, and other improvements I couldn’t wait to try. Oh, how excited I was, but the ZTE Open wasn’t finished with me yet. Ironically, my early phone needed a software update to make the software update feature work correctly, which I applied, but it didn’t seem to cure the problem. Then I read that Firefox OS 1.1’s release was in ZTE’s hands, and there was absolutely no guarantee it would come to the Open anytime soon. I’m not sure about you, but that sounds like the beginnings of fragmentation to me. Firefox OS already has updates that are as annoying as Android. How lovely.
Don’t sweat it Android, Firefox OS isn’t ready for the big time
Now, I understand that coming from any modern, expensive smartphone is going to highlight the humble ZTE Open’s shortcomings. But its inadequacy and Firefox OS’s annoyances go well beyond what’s acceptable in a phone that’s designed to be used everyday. Yes it’s early days and the phone’s cheap, but it’s frustrating to the point of throwing the phone out of the window. If we ever want to cure the world of people staring at their phones, force them to use a ZTE Open. It’ll be like penicillin.
If this is what Mozilla is sending to do battle with the mighty green Android, then it’s a suicide mission.
I was genuinely excited about using Firefox OS. I wanted to love it, and hoped to see a way for it to compete with Android. I even like the cheeky little ZTE Open, especially its orange rear cover and proud Firefox branding. However, instead of inspiring me, or drawing me into a brave new world of HTML5, it did the complete opposite. I went scurrying back to Android at the earliest opportunity. I’m lucky to have the option of leaving, and feel sorry for the poor sods who buy a ZTE Open (or its sister phone, the Alcatel One Touch Fire) because they don’t have any other choice.
If this is what Mozilla sent out to do battle with the mighty green Android, then it’s a suicide mission. Future versions of the software need to be so much better, and the hardware vastly improved if Firefox OS is to make even the slightest dent in Android’s enormous market share. And with great phones like the Moto G creeping down the price chain, Firefox OS may get mowed over before it ever has time to grow.