When Tim Berners-Lee came up with the concept of the world wide web, the very first browser he made allowed you to view the source code of the web page. The ability to view-source remains in all popular browsers made since.
Sometimes overlooked and often undervalued, the ability to view the code behind a web-page is one of the keys to the web's success. By allowing a generation of web-developers to build upon the work of others it can take large amount of credit for the rapid evolution of a new and vibrant media.
the ability to view the code behind a web-page is one of the keys to the web's success.
Developers and Users
For web designers and developers this is all very exciting, freeing their web based applications to access parts of the phones functionality that traditionally could only be accessed by native applications. This could also be very exciting for the average phone user for a number of reasons. Mozilla initially partnered with phone handset manufacturers LG and network operator Telefonica as part of their Open Web Device initiative. Significantly as many as 50% of Telefonica's clients are based in South America. Mozilla have also made a deal with LG to produce a cheap handset. It's estimated that the new Mozilla Phone could cost as little as a tenth of its Android and iPhone counterparts. More recently they announced that leading operators Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Smart, Sprint, Telecom Italia, Telefónica and Telenor are backing the open Firefox OS as the wider "Boot to Gecko project" is now being hailed.
Apparently Firefox OS runs just fine on a $60 handset with a 600Mhz CPU and just 128MB of RAM. It is also reported to boot in around 12 seconds. I've also heard anecdotal evidence that battery life is very good too. These are all good things that stem -- I presume at least in part -- from having a web-based operating system.
Apart from the fact that increased competition is almost always good, the release of Firefox OS is timely as it's estimated that many potential users are yet to switch to smartphones because of the price barrier. Indeed this could be many people's first taste of the web!
Of course people like to tinker and the fact that anybody can relatively easily alter the underlying OS could bring about some interesting permutations and as yet unthought-of applications.
In many ways complementing their new web-based OS Mozilla have launched Mozilla Marketplace an open HTML5 based app store. The view-source mentality and low barrier to entry could mean fantastic opportunities for a whole new generation of web makers. Mozilla like Google and other independent 'web-app-stores' such as AppsFuel have created a mechanism to allow developers to take payment and allow a shortcut to the web app to be placed on the user's home screen.
fantastic opportunities for a whole new generation of web makers.
Mozilla are working on making it easy for users to pay for apps using their own single sign-on and personal identification mechanism known as Persona. A mechanism like this would also simplify the process of synchronising apps and settings between devices.
This appears to be the non-profit's attempt to break the walled-garden approach that Apple -- and perhaps to a lesser extent Google -- seem keen to keep in place.
So what's different about how Apple handles the sale of apps and how Mozilla propose to handle it? Well let's deconstruct the process.
The Apple Way
In order to create, maintain and submit a native iOS app to Apple's app store you must first buy membership of Apple's iOS developer program which comes with Apple's Xcode environment (which incidentally is only available for Apple's OSX), create your app using Apple's propriety language: Objective C -- or use a third-party solution like Phonegap -- and then submit it to the App store for approval. If approved you will feature in Apple's app store.
The Open Way
No longer tied to any particular operating system, users win too. Currently if you wish to move from iOS to Android (for example), you cannot take your iOS apps with you. Creating web based apps based upon common standards the idea is that they work on all web-based platforms, which ultimately means more freedom for the consumer.
No longer tied to any particular operating system, users win too.
Detractors will inform you that native apps run more smoothly than web apps and have access to more of the devices's features making for a much superior overall experience. And this is true to a certain extent - especially on platforms like Apple's iOS but also on Google's Android. However, it's just a matter of time until a combination of better hardware and more direct access to it means that responsiveness won't be an issue. Tha handset I played with already seemed to be pretty snappy and the hardware access is being resolved with the provision of new APIs which are ready to be used now and are to be submitted to the W3C for standardisation.
According to The Yankee Group Apple's app store revenue for 2013 is projected to be around $12.9 billion up 40 percent on 2012 and set to follow a similar trend in 2014. Native apps are a big money-spinner for Apple.
And let's not forget Google in all of this. Google also encourage developers to write native apps for their Android platform to be sold in the Google Play Store. Although Google's app storebrings in less than a third of the revenue of Apple's, it is growing 10 times as fast Between them Google's Android and Apple's iOS accounted for 91% of smartphone OS in the last quarter of 2012.
Google's Android and Apple's iOS accounted for 91% of smartphone OS in the last quarter of 2012.
It is interesting to note that the one of the biggest mobile browsers worldwide right now is produced by Norwegian browser maker Opera and is especially popular in Africa, Asia and South America. Undoubtedly part of the secret of its success is that it makes browsing cheaper by intercepting web content and compressing it on its servers. If Mozilla and others like them can make entry-level smartphones cheap enough and provide enough web-apps to make the platform compelling we could see the web landscape shift significantly towards the open.
Anyone who has been following the growth of Linux both on the server, desktop and now mobile, will have witnessed the power of open source when it manages to galvinise the development community. Mozilla has managed this once before with their popular Firefox browser and they will hope to do so again with Firefox OS. Already Mozilla have launched a series of worldwide Firefox OS app developer days.
Mozilla has managed this once before with their popular Firefox browser
The key differentiator is that Firefox OS is web-based and there are far more web developers out there than traditional operating system developers. Mozilla will be hoping that the simplicity of customising a web based OS will draw web developers and web designers alike to contribute and kick-start a new and vibrant community of open source phone developers.
But it's not just users and developers that will find the openness of Firefox OS appealing. Network operators may also see a way to break out of the often restrictive Google/Apple duopoly. Indeed Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Smart, Sprint, Telecom Italia, Telefonica and Telenor are already on board and the first devices featuring Firefox OS will be manufactured by TCL Communication Technology (Alcatel) and ZTE.
The Browser Gamble
This investment in a web-based OS is a bold gamble for Mozilla, it will need to work well and look slick enough to attract wide scale adoption among the mainstream mobile users and there has been criticism that it doesn't yet meet either of these requirements, that said, this is set to improve and at the expected low price-points the user interface will likely be a secondary consideration for many. It is also notoriously difficult to make a mobile operating system attractive without a substantial quantity of apps for popular services and games. Time will tell whether either of these issues will prevent significant adoption.
Firefox's desktop market share has been waning of late and not coming pre-installed on any mobile operating system it looks like Firefox Mobile has yet to see significant adoption. Mozilla desperately needs a share in the mobile operating system market if they are to stand a chance of gaining browser market share, which through payments from Google for searches made through their integrated search bar is currently their main source of revenue.
This article has been written by Mark Boas