MWC2014: Firefox OS, PrivatOS and Nokia's Android fork

25 Feb 2014

If one had to describe the theme of the first day of Mobile World Congress 2014, it would have to be a renewed focus on bridging the digital divide and perhaps, as a subtext, privacy in the wake of the NSA scandal.

Away from Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote on connecting the next billion users and providing them with free basic services, much of the focus was on Mozilla’s Firefox O, an HTML5 phone based on web-technologies. Mozilla announced that it has set its sights on the $25 smartphone segment through a new low-cost chipset by Spreadtrum, with 3G and 2G EDGE reference designs announced.

Telenor, Telkomsel and Indosat had expressed interest in the platform.

Many low cost devices from ZTE, Alcatel, Huawei and Geeksphone were announced. Alcatel’s Fire 7 was the first Firefox OS tablet as well as the first to feature LTE. While focused on the emerging markets, it was clear that the line was blurring. I have just taken delivery of a Geeksphone Revolution myself (Android and Firefox dual-boot and with an Intel Atom inside) which I hope to reflect on once I have got to use it.

One interesting feature of Firefox OS was for random locations as a privacy measure, a nice post-Snowden touch but hardly of any real-world use against the Axis of Espionage.

The other phone launch that perked my interest was that of the Geeksphone-made Blackphone. Running a privacy-oriented fork of Android called PrivatOS, the phone stressed privacy, control and security and has an all-star lineup behind it. Phil Zimmerman (of PGP fame and Silent-circle co-founder) is co-founder as is Jon Callas, Silent Circle CTO. One might remember them for shutting down their secure web-based email service in the wake of the Lavabit scandal to prevent NSA spying.

PrivatOS itself features per-application control of various security settings, such as location settings and does not allow apps to rummage through contacts. This is in contrast to Google’s current black-or-white all or nothing approach where an application either is given all the access it wants to the phone or is not allowed to install at all.

Blackphone points out that some apps will fail because of this whereby the user could select another app or petition the developer to allow their apps to work without all the permissions it wants.

The cost however is not cheap. $629 dollars plus shipping and tax is not too bad for an unlocked device, but half the applications only work with other Blackphone users or those buying paid, expensive subscriptions. It comes bundled with three one-year subscriptions to silent circle so others can take secure phone calls, as well as 2 years of encrypted cloud backup and VPN, for instance.

The blackphone was the phone I was most excited about going into MWC (S5? Yawn...) but seeing the way it was pitched was a bit disappointing. Rather than a tin-foil-hat super-spy phone, it was a sensible phone with sensible privacy settings for suits rather than geeks. Virtually all its features were probably replicable, much cheaper, with cooked Android ROMs and tools like Guardian Project’s OTR and OrBot, but business people do not have time for this. Rather they want something that works out of the box and will protect their secrets from foreign governments and WiFi sniffing trackers in dustbins and airports rather than the NSA.

I asked a handful of my fellow tin-foil-hat strong-encryption messaging friends about it and the response was pretty unanimous. Without having the entire OS open sourced and actually compiling the source code for the ROM yourself (known as cooking), was it really that secure? It is all about trusting a company with your security and who would know if Blackphone was better than Google when it came to respecting privacy internally.

Well, they are under Swiss law rather than US jurisdiction, so that is a plus, and Zimmerman did write PGP, but who knows?

It seems to me that Blackphone is going after the high-security market that BlackBerry once had before it went mainstream. It will be interesting to see how they fare in a year’s time.

SecureOS was not the only Android fork in town. Nokia X was running Android too with Nokia’s app store replacing Google’s of course.

Much has been said on the entry-level handsets from the Microsoft subsidiary but one wonders if Nokia is serious about it of it they are just launching a low-end Android phone to reinforce the message that Android is low-end.

That said, one wonders if Nokia will have to pay the Microsoft patent tax on Android. If it does not, it would have a substantial cost advantage over other players who are understood to be paying $10 to $15 per device.

On Monday, Microsoft announced that its Windows Phone had surpassed BlackBerry’s market share. The audience laughed. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.


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