FIREFOX, A WEB browser made by the non-profit Mozilla Foundation, was born as “Phoenix”. It rose from the ashes of Netscape Navigator, slain by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. In 2012 Mozilla created Firefox OS, to rival Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android mobile operating systems. Unable to compete with the duopoly, Mozilla killed the project.
Another phoenix has arisen from it. KaiOS, an operating system conjured from the defunct software, powered 30m devices in 2017 and another 50m in 2018. Most were simple flip-phones sold in the West for about $80 apiece, or even simpler ones which Indians and Indonesians can have for as little as $20 or $7, respectively. Smartphones start at about $100. The company behind the software, also called KaiOS and based in Hong Kong, designed it for smart-ish phones—with an old-fashioned number pad and long battery life, plus 4G connectivity, popular apps such as Facebook and modern features like contactless payments, but not snazzy touchscreens.
Most such devices are found in India. Reliance Jio, a network that has upended the local mobile industry with heavily discounted 4G data plans, sells subsidised, Jio-branded phones that use KaiOS software. A customer at a Jio store in Mumbai’s Bandra district wonders out loud why anyone would pay for a pricier Android smartphone when you can stream cricket and snap selfies on the cheaper JioPhone. KaiOS has signed deals with Orange and MTN, two big networks in Africa. It is eyeing Latin America and the Middle East.
Google, which invested $22m in Kaios last year, prioritises getting people in emerging markets online, where it can sell their attention to advertisers, over getting them onto Android smartphones. Smart-ish phones help with this. In India they will persist for another decade, reckons Chris Lane of Bernstein, a research firm. But Jio cannot subsidise handsets for ever. Even if KaiOS software powers another 70m devices this year, as the company expects, that would be barely one-twentieth of the 1.5bn Apple and Android phones sold annually. Carving out a niche before ever-cheaper smartphones make its compromises obsolete will not be easy.