Why Mozilla's Firefox OS is important to the mobile industryChase Bonar - Contributing Editor
If you asked me what I thought of Mozilla's presentation of Firefox OS in Barcelona this week, I wouldn't have too much to say despite the company landing important hardware partnerships with Alcatel, Geeksphone, and ZTE. Simply put, if you're accustomed to a traditional home screen and grid of icons, you've seen Firefox OS. Yet, I'm not disappointed with Firefox OS because of it's appearance. It's purpose far outweighs these shortcomings. Being that Firefox is such a young platform, it has a long way to go before it can match the two big guns in the mobile battlefield, Android and iOS. However, the reason it has my attention is due in part to its focus on web-based computing and the potential it has to be a contender in emerging markets with very low price points.
That being said, Firefox OS does not have their crosshairs set on consumers like myself, or even competitors like Android and iOS. They're planning an entirely different attack. Firefox OS is pinned for launch in emerging markets aboard the feature phones and budget devices that go along with the territory. Additionally, the reception of Firefox OS could have a large impact in mobile computing if successful, but it won't be easy. To say the odds are against Firefox OS would be an understatement. Mozilla is all-in and even though Firefox's parent company, the Mozilla Foundation, is non-profit, their brand image is largely at stake.
Basically, it's easy to brush Firefox OS off at first glance, but there's a reason we've been hearing more and more about it this week. They're about to start running up-hill and their effect in emerging markets could send shock waves through the entire mobile industry.
When it comes down to it, the mobile market is moving so fast that anyone who isn't employed in Mountain View (Google's HQ), or Cupertino (Apple's HQ) isn't getting noticed. I don't mean Windows Phone 8 and BB10 aren't fantastic alternatives, but they're just not anywhere near as popular as the number one and two placeholders. But Firefox is a very different animal than it's competitors. Firefox OS is a linux-based mobile operating system and is completely open-source and optimized for HTML5. It's also the first mobile platform built to open Web standards meaning everything on a smartphone running Firefox OS will be web-based, from the camera to the phone itself, compared to Android and iOS which run native camera and phone apps (stored on the smartphone itself).
This is what makes Firefox OS unique in the crowded mobile operating system market. It's the fact that every application on a Firefox-powered smartphone runs on the web, and the HTML5 flavor of it, which is the latest version of the Internet's language. So, from the time you launch Angry Birds or Twitter, you will be greeted with the Web view of the app running inside of the Firefox web browser powered by Gecko, a free and open-source web layout engine.
In a recent study by Gartner, a Technology Research firm, the firm estimates that HTML5 web-based apps will surpass native on-board apps by 2015. As compared to both Android and iOS which favor native on-board apps instead of web-based.
So, what will it mean if Firefox OS' web-based approach catches on in the mobile market?
It means Android and iOS would have some catching up to do while the open-source nature and development of Firefox OS gains an advantage in HTML5 development.
Being that Firefox OS does not retrieve any data from cache or local memory, you'll notice a quicker boot-up time. Firefox OS also derives all resources from the browser, Firefox, which is completely open-source and compliant with Web standards.
If you were to compare Firefox OS to Chrome OS, Google's web-based approach to desktop computing, you'd find many similarities. Both operating systems use a browser and the Internet for all tasks. However, where connectivity could be a limiting factor in the desktop experience of Chrome OS, Firefox OS gains an advantage by constantly being connected to a cellular tower. In theory, then, Firefox OS has the upper-hand in web-based computing so as long as your connection is fast enough.
Yet, Firefox OS' intent is to beckon developers to use the operating system as a platform for HTML5 development, and not necessarily as an immediate competitor to Android and iOS. If the first smartphone running Firefox OS sells well in its target markets at affordable price points, Firefox OS could bring emphasis to the HTML5 language and leave the competition behind.
Due in part to the complexity of the Internet's latest markup language, HTML5, Firefox OS and it's spark of development and open-source nature could give web-based computing the push it needs. Certainly, Android and iOS are not giving HTML5 the push that Firefox OS can.
Timing is playing a vital role in the fate of Firefox OS as a viable contender in the mobile market. With Microsoft's Windows Phone, BlackBerry's BB10, and most recently, Samsung's Tizen, the mobile operating system arena is busy. Consumers are gravitating towards the two most dominant players because that's where the latest hardware and software resources are.
However, where Firefox OS is aiming to take away Android and iOS market share is in emerging markets where budget devices reign supreme. These parts of the world are also noticing a decline in adoption of mobile devices running the Android and iOS operating systems. So, it seems like a win-win situation for Mozilla if they can manage to get the Firefox OS in the hands of enough consumers.
It's much too early to tell how Firefox OS will do in the coming year, but there is one force that will drive the success of the Firefox OS. That force is Internet access. The experience of Firefox OS and it's entire catalog of web-based apps will depend on Internet download speeds. The main disadvantage of running all applications on the Web is the increased reliance on speedy connectivity, something emerging markets are just getting accustomed to.
Whether or not the Firefox OS will be able to manage the shortcomings of slow Internet speeds has yet to be tested. However, you can be certain that Firefox OS' reception will be heavily documented in the months to come, along with HTML5 adoption rates, and development of the web-based approach to mobile computing.
Do you think Firefox OS is an operating system you could envision yourself using? If the web-based approach to mobile computing proves successful, is Firefox OS an operating system you could envision on a flagship device? Let me know how you feel about Firefox's fate in the comments below!
Image via Geeksphone.