The online world was abuzz when Mozilla announced last year it would develop its very own operating system for smartphones and tablet computers. Originally dubbed as “Boot to Gecko” or B2G, Firefox OS is HTML5-ready. So what can we expect from Firefox OS? What are its features and benefits? What’s “new” with it? What are its comparisons to other mobile OS? Should Android and iOS worry about it? Lastly, are there opportunities for mobile app developers?
Welcome Firefox OS!
What do you think about when you hear Firefox? You think of the browser that challenged the dominance of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Soon, you can have Firefox on your smartphone and tablet too, and not just as a browser application. It will be running your mobile device!
What is Firefox OS?
Firefox OS is simply a new mobile operating system currently being developed by Mozilla, the people behind the very popular Firefox browser. It uses the Gecko engine that allows users to use open Web standards to develop and run applications.
With more than one year in development, Mozilla still has to come out with a working prototype of their much-publicized OS. But they recently introduce an add-on that you could install on your Firefox browser. The add-on will simulate how the new OS would run and function.
Florence Ion at ARSTechnica did not mince words in saying that the new OS feels like and looks like Android. In terms of design, Firefox OS has liberally borrowed from Android so much that it looks like you are using an Android-powered phone.
Ion runs through the OS and how it currently looks:
- The lock screen looks pretty much like an Android lock screen, with a clock and date information as well as quick keys to your home screen or camera app. You have the option to add a background image.
- The home screen has enough space for four app icons: SMS messaging, dialer, contacts and the Firefox browser.
- While you can expect to find all the things you see in an Android smartphone such as home screens, dialer, galleries, maps, marketplace, connectivity options, SMS and apps, there are some things that are unique to the Firefox OS. What’s new: an FM radio app that looks like the old radio where you have to turn the dial to find your favorite radio station and a hidden feedback button that allows you to send the development team suggestions and criticisms. Lastly, it has a dedicated panel for everything.me, an HTML 5 mobile search page that allows you to use apps without having to download them to your phone.
This brings us to the difference between Firefox OS, Android and iOS.
What Sets Firefox OS Apart?
One of the biggest criticisms that Mozilla has gotten regarding the new OS is that it looks very similar to both iOS and Android. So much so that there are concerns that they might get sued by both Google and Android for patent infringement. A concern that Andreas Gal, Mozilla’s director of research, did not discount as a possibility.
In any case, there are some distinct differences between the top mobile operating systems and Firefox OS:
- Based on the Gecko engine.
- Lower price.
- Easy to personalize.
Firefox OS on Gecko
This helps Firefox OS hit the ground running. This philosophy helps them get more apps on board. So what about the apps?
Everyone knows that the reason why any mobile operating system succeeds is because of the apps. iOS and Android are two of the most successful mainly because they have the most number of apps available in their respective marketplaces. Most smartphone users would not know nor care about their phones’ processors and other things going on inside it. Instead, they care about what they can do with their phones, which is where mobile apps come in.
Firefox OS’ marketplace already has some notable apps even before it has launched. But what is interesting is that Mozilla focused on these open Web standards and made it central to the OS. What this means is that developing the OS and its ecosystem, including the mobile apps it would use, would be easier. Third-party developers already know the language and they could quickly come up with apps for the new operating system. Or as in the case of everything.me, Firefox OS could tap into the HTML 5 apps already available and add it to its offerings.
In short, Firefox OS is just providing a platform for smartphone users to use Web applications on their phones.
Another thing that should help Firefox OS along is its price point. Author and technology speaker Rob Hawkes explains that Firefox OS is not out to kill iOS, Windows Phone and Android, but to provide a cheaper alternative that would bring in comparable if not better performance. At the very worst, it would eat up iPhone sales in developing countries like the Philippines and Brazil, much like what Android is doing. So Apple does not really have to worry about it as it is targeted at a different market, for the same reason that they should not worry about Android.
Google, on the other hand, might find itself exposed. Both Android and Firefox OS swear by open source by principle and lower costs, but Firefox OS has one more distinct advantage.
One thing that current operating systems lack is the degree and ease in which users could customize their mobile devices. It simply is not easy to customize an iPhone or an Android device. You would need to rely on rooting and jailbreaks or you would need to download an app.
With Firefox OS, you only need to have basic Web development tools and skills. If you know HTML or CSS, you can change the way your phone or tablet looks, without having to complicate your life and pull your hair out.
In Closing, the Future…
With a focus on Web standards and open source technologies, you could expect Firefox OS to go very far. So much so that it might be the mobile operating system of choice for the future. Firefox OS makes mobile ecosystems very simple for developers and very affordable for users. It might even force Apple, Google and others to shatter their self-created silos and start working together, very much similar to how Mozilla’s Firefox browser forced IE, Netscape Navigator and the earlier Web browsers to work together.