ZTE has found that smartphones with the Firefox OS are doing well in developing countries but not in the U.S., where the company is taking a multipronged mobile OS approach.
ZTE started selling its Open smartphones with Firefox OS in the U.S. and other countries last year, mostly through eBay. The devices are targeted at first-time smartphone users and have largely been priced under US$100. But ZTE's latest Open C with Firefox, which went on sale in May, isn't being sold by the company through its U.S. eBay site anymore.
"Firefox [OS] -- it's well accepted in some emerging markets but not much in the U.S," said Lixin Cheng, chairman and CEO of ZTE USA.
More developers are needed to write applications for the mobile Firefox OS to improve the experience of users, Cheng said.
"It's really about the ecosystem, it's really about what you can do with the phone, rather than OS," Cheng said.
ZTE made its mark selling affordable smartphones worldwide and its U.S. market share is growing. The company in recent months started shipping new Android smartphones in the U.S. The most notable was the ZMAX smartphone, which has a 5.7-inch screen and is sold through T-Mobile for $252 without a contract or installment plan. The handset is a low-cost competitor to Samsung's Galaxy Note 4 and Apple iPhone 6 Plus.
ZTE wants to continue offering customers choices in devices and OSes, and will continue to support the Firefox OS. ZTE would even consider offering phones with Apple's iOS, if it were ever opened to other smartphone makers, Cheng said.
Beyond smartphones, ZTE also makes networking and telecom equipment. For example, ZTE's technology is used in building the Gogo in-flight Internet service. ZTE hopes it smartphones will piggyback on its telecom infrastructure to provide better mobile services.
"We understand ... how you better allocate resources between the devices, the power and also the core network," Cheng said.
While Apple and Samsung are household names, ZTE is still building brand recognition. The company announced Monday that it would be the official smartphone provider for the New York Knicks and Golden State Warriors basketball teams. It had announced a similar deal with the Houston Rockets basketball team last year.
ZTE and Huawei have been sources of infrastructure security concerns for the U.S. government, but Cheng said ZTE is publicly traded in China and Hong Kong with a transparent ownership and governance structure. The company is accountable to its shareholders, like any publicly traded company in the U.S.
So while the U.S. government may not be a major client, ZTE is working with telecom companies and sees a big opportunity to reach consumers with "affordable, premium" smartphones, Cheng said.
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