ZTE might get some developer love with cheap Firefox phone

by Steve Blum • , , , , , , , ,

Or it might be chasing its tail.

ZTE isn’t big in the U.S. Only the least of the four major mobile carriers – Sprint – offers a branded ZTE smart phone on its website and then just a single model. Its only distinguishing feature is the number of flaming negative reviews written by unhappy buyers.

With little to lose, ZTE is bypassing mobile carriers and going direct-to-geek by selling an unlocked $80 phone – the Open – running the new Firefox mobile operating system on eBay.

It’s a quad band GSM device, which pretty much targets customers running on AT&T’s network, either directly or via a reseller. Since T-Mobile’s 3G service primarily operates on the 1700/2100 MHz bands its usefulness there is limited, particularly since the HTML5-based Firefox OS is heavily dependent on full time connectivity.

But for eighty bucks, how can you go wrong? So I just ordered one, even though I’m a T-Mobile customer.

Selling a wonky phone with a niche OS on eBay isn’t a mass market strategy. It’s really a quick and dirty way to get what amounts to a development kit into the hands of would-be app developers. Judging from the sales numbers on its eBay listing, ZTE has sold about 700 Open phones in about a day.

That’s not going to do much for ZTE’s global ranking. Along with Huawei, LG and Lenovo, ZTE is a solid member of the five percent club, the distant pack of smart phone makers chasing Samsung and Apple, which account for about half the market between them. Even so, ZTE is beginning to eat into Apple’s share.

That trend is likely to continue. Apple focuses exclusively on high end devices, while Samsung offers something at pretty much every price point. As volume manufacturers increasingly target the sub-$100 end of the market, they’ll gain share at Apple’s expense. Using a cheap, stripped down OS helps, but they’ll need a lot of help from developers. Seeding the dev community with a few hundred Firefox phones could be a good way to get it.