History of KaiOS

Posted by Tom Barrasso on (updated on )

Learn about KaiOS, the world’s third most popular mobile operating system.

KaiOS’ Origins

KaiOS Logo
KaiOS Logo

KaiOS is the successor to the now-defunct Firefox OS and Boot2Gecko (B2G). Firefox OS was first demoed publicly in 2012 and discontinued four years later in 2016. It sought to provide a standards-based and open web alternative to Android and iOS by offering APIs that progressively bridged the gap between traditional web apps and native mobile apps, without requiring developers rewrite their existing apps using new technologies.

Ultimately, Firefox OS was never widely adopted, and along with Microsoft’s Windows Phone, faded into obscurity. However, Mozilla’s flagship operating system lives on in several closed-source reincarnations including Panasonic’s My Home Screen and KaiOS. Concepts for porting Firefox OS on feature phones date back to at least 2015, and many of the same folks who designed and developed Firefox OS transitioned to roles with KaiOS Technologies.

Fact: KaiOS was not the only notable fork of Firefox OS. Before KaiOS, in 2015 Acadine Technologies made another now-defunct Firefox OS fork called H5OS which was never released publicly.

The JioPhone and KaiOS’ Rise

JioStore on the JioPhone 2
JioStore on the JioPhone 2

Roughly one year after Firefox OS was sunset, KaiOS was initially released in 2017 targetting the rural Indian market with Reliance’s iconic JioPhone. The JioPhone was a huge success, selling more than 5 crore (50 million) units in under 2 years! The original model sold for just ₹1,500 (~$18 USD), equipt with 4G, Wi-Fi, 4GB storage, and several keys apps like the ubiquitous WhatsApp.

Fact: The name KaiOS comes from Kai, which is Chinese for open – 开 (kāi).

Let There Be KaiAds

KaiAd Examples
KaiAd Examples

As KaiOS began to expand beyond India, it followed the footsteps of most Big Tech companies and launched it’s own foray into the world of digital advertising with KaiAds. KaiAds quickly became both the default and required monetization strategy for third-party developers on the platform. Per Submission Guidelines, “we are only accepting apps that are monetized using KaiAds SDK,” and according to their Submission Agreement, they share “30% of Net Revenue to Developer”. KaiAds supports not only developers, but KaiOS in research and development, as well as manufacturers and telecommunications companies in offering subsidized devices.

Fact: with Firefox OS, Mozilla also encouraged developers to monetize using Inneractive’s library for integrating digital ads into apps and games. Mozilla also provided options for in-app payments, for which it took no revenue share from developers.

KaiOS Smart Touch: The OS That Never Was

KaiOS Smart Touch (Source: scottwudesign.com/kaios-smart-touch)
KaiOS Smart Touch (Source: scottwudesign.com/kaios-smart-touch)

In 2020, KaiOS quietly hinted at the release of KaiOS Smart Touch, a touchscreen version similar to Firefox OS targeted at budget-friendly phones running low-end hardware in an attempt to undercut Google’s Android Go. Later that year, KaiOS released designs, a simulator, developer documentation, and device targets on their app store, the KaiStore Submission Portal. Unlike Android or iOS, in an effort to save screen real estate, KaiOS Smart Touch combined the status and navigation bars typically found on the top of the screen into a combined “Infogation Bar” at the screen’s bottom. Sadly, KaiOS Smart Touch was never released publicly and documentation has been withdrawn.

Fact: In 2021, Reliance released the next iteration of the JioPhone family called the JioPhone Next. Instead of KaiOS it runs Pragati OS, a rebrand of Android Go.

Digital Detox & Growth in Western Markets

Albeit small, another market where KaiOS has seen success is in the west among a subset of “digital detoxers.” Downgrading to a “dumb” phone means forgoing most social media, ultimately spending less time scrolling and more time being present. There are entire YouTube channels like Jose Briones’ dedicated to reviewing minimalist devices and feature phones like those running KaiOS. For this market KaiOS serves a middle ground: offering basic functionality like phone calls and SMS, internet connectivity, and a catalog of downloadable applications, while still being too cumbersome to type long messages on T9 keyboards.

Fact: according to the Pew Research Center, in 2001 the average internet user spend 83 minutes per session. In 2022, the average smartphone user spent 4.5 hours per day on their device.

KaiOS 3.0: A Major Update

After several years and over one hundred models sold worldwide running KaiOS 2.5, in September 2021 two phones–the Alcatel Go Flip 4 and TCL Flip Pro–became the first to ship with KaiOS 3.0 to the US market. This launch corresponded closely with initial 3G network shutdowns in the US. KaiOS 3.0 proved to be a major update, notably upgrading the Gecko Engine from the outdated v48 (KaiOS 2.5) to 84 (KaiOS 3.0), as well as pivoting from legacy Firefox OS WebAPIs to progressive web apps in the hopes of attracting more developers to repackage and publish their PWAs for smart feature phones.

Fact: updates continue with the release of new devices like the Nokia 2780 Flip running KaiOS 3.1, all targeting the US market.

What’s Next for KaiOS?

KaiOS continues to publish updates, release devices, and raise funding with a focus on digitalisation and growth in Sub-Saharan Africa. Feature phones have been described as the “silver” of the mobile market, and KaiOS is hoping to replicate the success it saw in India on the African continent.

For more background, check out Flashback: Firefox OS burns down, KaiOS rises from the ashes.