* Sprint, D.Telekom, Smart, T.Italia, Telenor join backers
* Phonemakers ZTE, TCL to make first handsets early 2013
* New platform focuses on lowering smartphone price
* Price seen well below cheapest Android phones
By Tarmo Virki, European Technology Correspondent
HELSINKI, July 2 (Reuters) - A new operating system for mobile phones akin to the Mozilla Firefox internet browser has got the backing of several major telecom companies, turning up the heat on Google and Apple in the smartphone market.
Mozilla said on Monday that mobile network operators Deutsche Telekom, Sprint, Smart, Telecom Italia , Telenor and Etisalat are backing the Firefox platform.
The non-profit organisation which evolved from Netscape after the internet browser wars 14 years ago, said phone makers ZTE and TCL Communication Technology will roll out the first Firefox OS phones using Qualcomm's Snapdragon processors in early 2013.
Mozilla, which fosters the collective development of open-source Web applications, currently generates most of its income from a contract which makes Google the default search provider for Firefox users.
Broad support from telecom companies and handset makers is crucial for any new smartphone platform to take off in a market increasingly dominated by Google's Android software, which has a market share of around 60 percent, while Apple's iPhones run on its proprietary iOS software.
In addition to market leaders Android and Apple, a number of smaller players like RIM, Microsoft and Samsung's Bada are also competing for a share of the mobile software market.
But Gary Kovacs, chief executive of Mozilla Corp, said he was confident there was room on the market for a Firefox platform, being an open Web-based alternative to the for-profit offerings from Google and Apple.
"I think this will be very widely adopted," Kovacs told Reuters in an interview.
After an initial launch with Telefonica's Vivo brand in Brazil early next year Firfox-powered phones will be launched on other emerging markets and then elsewhere, Kovacs said.
Phone companies have tried before to create platforms to combat the growing dominance of Android, but have so far failed as they had to create from scratch the ecosystem around platform: developer tools, applications, developer community.
"Success for any platform is dependent on the virtuous circle of scale and momentum. Manufacturer and operator commitment is essential to driving developer support and consumer interest which in turn strengthens demand for the platform," said Geoff Blaber, analyst at CCS Insight.
The new Firefox platform aims to overcome the problem by tapping into a community of 3 to 5 million web developers and most of the apps are already created on HTML5, the preferred standard for creating mobile browser content.
The sector has seen the demise of many rival platforms in the last few years, including operator-led initiatives like LiMo, and also Palm's WebOS and Nokia's Symbian operating systems which failed to win enough support from developers and device manufacturers.
The free Firefox platform could put pressure on Microsoft and Google, which themselves are trying to attract handset manufacturers. But Microsoft collects licensing fees of up to $20 per Windows phone and also collects royalties from makers of Android devices.
TCL, which uses Alcatel brand for its phones, and ZTE are both hoping the new Firefox platform will help make up for their late entrance to the booming smartphone market.
The growth in smartphone sales is slowing this year from the bumper years of 2010 and 2011 but is still expected to be running at some 40 percent from a year ago.
Mozilla, which has been working with Telefonica on creating the software, demonstrated the platform and its key features in February at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona.
The new platform combines HTML5 with some of the core elements of Linux technology, cutting the need for a separate operating system and enabling fast roll-out of new phone models.
In competition with Mozilla's Firefox, Google has introduced its Chrome browser and browser-based operating system for personal computers.
"The line between browser and operating system is getting blurred," Kovacs said.
Cutting some layers of a traditional operating system allows the new platform to be used on smartphones with lower processing power and with lower cost materials.
Telefonica has said the phone price will be significantly cheaper than the low-end Android models, meaning Firefox phones can be priced at levels around $50 excluding operator subsidies.
This compares with price of around $200 for a typical smartphone.
Ovum analyst Nick Dillon said pricing of the devices will be the key for their success, and questioned whether cutting out some layers of operating system would bring significant savings.
"It is hard to see how you could make them much cheaper than comparable Android handsets," Dillon said.