Updated 1:49 p.m. ET, Tuesday, July 17
Mozilla has a bold plan to outfox the major players in the increasingly competitive mobile software space. The company, best known for its Firefox web browser, announced at the start of July that it would be releasing its own mobile device operating system, Firefox OS, on smartphones in Brazil beginning in “early 2013.”
At the time, Mozilla explained it would be partnering with a variety of device and chip manufacturing companies to produce smartphones running Firefox OS and that the entire project was an evolution of Mozilla’s stated “goal of building a complete, standalone operating system for the open web,” announced back in July 2011 under the name “Boot to Gecko,” a reference to Mozilla’s Gecko layout engine, which powers the Firefox browser.
Now Mozilla has elaborated on its plans even further, with Andreas Gal, Director of Research for Mozilla, explaining to TPM just why the company thinks its completely open source, entirely web-based and cheap mobile Firefox OS devices will succeed and win over customers.
“Internet usage is going mobile but the two dominant mobile platforms are closed and don’t have the openness of the Web,” Gal told TPM in an email, referring to Google’s Android OS and Apple’s iOS, which powers the iPhone and the iPad. “We believe all existing smart phone platforms are walled gardens, and the web is the only truly free and open alternative. As such, the third mobile platform will be the Web. “
While the latest projections from leading analysts indeed project that mobile Web traffic will quickly eclipse desktop Web traffic as early as 2015, Mozilla’s Firefox OS places more faith in the mobile web than most: Its smartphone will only run Web applications, specifically apps built using the new standard HTML5 markup language.
Most other smartphones and mobile devices, including Google Android devices and the Apple iPhone and iPad, have what are called “native” apps, which are installed on the devices themselves and rely on device memory and processing power to operate.
Although many apps on these existing platforms do connect to the Web to transmit data and offer services, such as Facebook sign-ins, they aren’t primarily “web-based” in the way that Firefox OS will be, requiring a connection to perform all but the most basic mobile phone functions.
“Firefox OS uses the offline caching abilities of the web to support offline mode for applications where it makes sense,” Gal confirmed. “For example, it’s still possible to make phone calls or play games even without data connection.”
Still, Gal said that Firefox OS would offer a best-of-both-worlds approach, using a smartphone’s own memory in the same way that native apps do while at the same time “overcoming the limitations” of native apps using Web-based services.
As part of this effort, Mozilla will offer its own app store, the Mozilla Marketplace, which was first opened to app submissions by third-party software developers in February.
“Firefox OS will feature a marketplace for mobile applications, including third-party apps,” Gal told TPM, also stating: “Mozilla’s marketplace is built on open standards and Mozilla supports other alternative third-party marketplaces in Firefox OS, as well as direct discovery of apps and content via the web.”
Apple has indeed been criticized for the seeming arbitrariness and opacity with which it operates its own closed App Store. Although Google’s Play store, formerly known as the Android Market, is less tightly controlled, that approach too has drawbacks — more malware on Android devices — and Google has made recent moves to more tightly control and unify the experience of its software.
As for prices, Gal didn’t specify what the first line of Firefox OS smartphones would retail for, but said that: “Everyone welcomes choice, competition and openness in the industry and those telcos with operations in developing markets have a specific requirement for smartphones that deliver a better experience for customers at the lower price point end of the market.”
Whether smartphone users are willing to accept limited functionality on Firefox OS where Internet and data connectivity are scarce in exchange for a completely open, and thus entirely customizable, mobile experience, remains to be seen.
Mozilla has some other unanswered questions upon which the success of its Firefox OS rests. To begin with, there’s no firm launch date outside of Brazil early 2013, which Mozilla says is due to the fact that its partners — the original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs — are still working out their own release timelines.
“Launch timing may differ based on footprint, OEM selection and desired price points,” Gal said, but added that a U.S. launch date “will be announced closer to the commercial launch,” in early 2013.
Also, despite wanting to support device customization, Mozilla’s Firefox OS ” will only work on compatible devices, not on legacy iOS or Android devices,” according to Gal. This despite the fact that Mozilla supporters and executives recently tweeted a photo of an older Samsung phone running Firefox OS (seen at the top of this piece).
For now, Mozilla has at least convinced major telecommunications companies and device manufacturers to sign onto the project, including Deutsche Telekom (T-Mobile USA’s parent company), Etisalat, Smart, Sprint, Telecom Italia, Telefónica, Telenor, TCL Communication Technology and ZTE. The first Brazilian Firefox OS phones will be made by TCL and ZTE and sold under Telefónica’s Vivo brand name.
Asked about whether Firefox OS would be available on tablets in the near future, Gal offered a cryptic response: “We are in discussion with a number of partners for a wide variety of uses for Firefox OS.”
Correction: This article has been updated to correct a quote from Mozilla Research Director Andreas Gal, which was originally published stating that “Mozilla has always supported an open web standard and will extend our support for an open web apps marketplace standard as well,” when in fact, Gal actually stated “Mozilla’s marketplace is built on open standards and Mozilla supports other alternative third-party marketplaces in Firefox OS, as well as direct discovery of apps and content via the web.” We apologize for the error and have since corrected it in copy.