Forget iPhone 5: Mozilla wants to get the next two billion users onto Firefox OS, an open mobile phone, says Brendan Eich
With this week’s hulaballoo around the iPhone 5, it’s tempting to dismiss Firefox OS, the mobile operating system from browser maker Mozilla. But of the two, Firefox OS is the one which aims to shake things up – while the new iPhone is just an update.
Why do we need another OS when the existing ones are fighting so hard for market share, and previously strong players like RIM are going down the drain?
Firefox OS is based on a Linux kernel and runs apps entirely in HTML5. Why has Mozilla done this, and why are the first phones launching in Brazil?
As it turns out, the organisation has two clear aims – and TechWeekEurope got a good explanation of both in a face-to-face chat with its CTO, Brendan Eich. It’s about opening up phone operating systems to the web, and serving a huge need – for cheap, functional phones in emerging markets.
Forget the iPhone 5!
In a nutshell, Eich believes it is time to open the market for mobile operating systems the way Firefox did for browsers, and he thinks the best place to do this is in the developing world, where there is a hungry market for better feature phones. In other words, Firefox OS isn’t taking on Apple’s iOS – it is disrupting the market by attacking on a different front entirely.
Despite the respect he has for another mobile Linux operating system, Eich doesn’t think Android is invulnerable, saying it is “somewhat like Windows”. And Firefox OS has something else up its sleeve: it should be immune to patent suits, of the kind that are flying between Apple and Android vendors.
TechWeekEurope saw a lot of interest in Firefox OS after publishing a series of images of the upcoming system. A poll of our readers showed that they “got” the Firephone idea quicker than we did ourselves.
“Would they develop for Firefox OS?” we asked. Nearly half said they were doing it already, since they work in HTML5. But why would they want to put apps on the platform?
After Mozilla launched Firefox, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer radically improved, and Google released its Chrome. “We got the world we wanted,” said Eich.
But he thinks that desktop browsers are approaching an “asymptote”. He still prefers Firefox, but like most users, runs both. It’s harder for browsers to distinguish themselves, and the desktop browser wars have become a “zero sum game”, he said. “There’s a tangent line that you can’t get past.”
Meanwhile, the web is still expanding. And where are the next users coming from? “We are conscious of the fact that 2.5 billion people have come on the web in the past 20 years, and we are going to get anther 2.5 billion in the next five years,” explained Eich.
Most of these will own mobile devices, and they will need something more flexible than iOS or Android, he said, because people do more than just browse. “‘Consumer’ is never a complete description of anyone I know. People use wikis and blogs, and do web apps.”
“Android is like Windows”
iOS and Android exclude ordinary people from making a contribution, because the software market is “pixel perfect, and gate-kept by the app stores.” Eich wants Firefox OS to be a more open environment that puts the user first. “We think there is a gap to fill.”
Having said that, he is aware that (for all the excitement the screenshots cause) Firefox OS is unremarkable looking. It offers a grid of icons similar to both iOS and Android, and controls for all the features of the phone.
Despite this, it is a “classic disruptive innovation” in the sense used by management thinker Clay Christensen, said Eich. “Disruptive innovations look low class, insufficient or repellent,” he said. “[Firefox OS] will be disdained by many users as an older iPhone experience.”
The low-end approach means Firefox OS will run on phones with 256M of memory and a single core 700 – 800MHz CPU, the kind of system which is underpowered when compared with iOS or Android. This makes it perfect for the large markets in developing countries like Brazil, where most people use low-cost devices, mainly feature phones.
“We see an opportunity to serve users by converting them from feature phones to inexpensive smartphones,” said Eich. “The action is in the emerging market, not going up against the top end of the market in the US, where Android is chasing Apple.”
And Microsoft Windows Phone? “Good luck to them!” laughs Mozilla CTO.
In its approach, Android is “somewhat like Windows,” said Eich. Even thought it’s “mostly open”, Google’s process for open-sourcing Android has attracted a lot of criticism. In contrast, the Firefox OS is all based on standards, which Eich thinks gives it an incidental resistance to any sort of patent suit – in particular the kind of suit Apple is pursuing against Android vendors, and in particular Samsung.
“I do think one of our biuggest benefits is in the standards process,” he explained. “W3C has a royalty-free patent protocol. Everyone has a chance to pull back their IPR or else to put it forward into the standard. When you get enough people in the standards body, you get royalty free standards.”
So is Firefox OS immune to patent suits? “Well, you can’t plan against submarine claims, but all participants have submitted IPR and that is a big help.”
Make the phone fit the market
“In Brazil, Android phones are not cheap and they are running Android [version] 2 or 3, and that is not a good proposition. In a year the price will come down, but some of the apps will stop working.” A phone running HTML5 apps on cheap hardware can have a longer life.
This suits OEMs, who want a way to offer better phones to developing markets that use their manufacturing ability to churn out mass market devices, he said. “That’s why we have ZTE and others on board”. In addition to Telefonica, operators on board now apparently include Telenor and Deutsche Telecom – and “there will be others”.
While some might want the smartphone look with the grid of icons, many of Mozilla’s target users will be happy with feature phones – so one of Mozilla’s partners is building a feature phone-like interface on top of Firefox OS. Other innovations include a “gamified” interface that lets users minimise their bill.
“They are very clever about it,” he said. “It’s not anything like the extravagance and overprovision you see in the First World, where people buy more data than they can possibly use. And this is actually better – because operators can provision and plan better.”
There have been attempts to make a low-cost Android phone, but Android simply doesn’t fit this market, said Eich, so Firefox OS is radically simpler, and uses shared resources and standards everywhere it can.
“We are not reinventing the Linux kernel and the device layer. We are using the shared resource of Linux on smartphones, building on a kernel that Qualcomm and the like already know how to build a phone on. On top of that we are only adding the web, so we have a thinner stack.”
The innovation is basically APIs, interfaces that give web control to all the parts of the phone – hence the interest in screen shots that show that Firefox OS can take charge of the camera in a phone, and all the other hardware apps. In Brazil, for instance, an FM radio app is an essential, so Firefox OS has been fitted with one.
“A lot of APIs are byte size and easy to customise, for controlling the camera, SMS messaging, etc,” said Eich. “Even controlling the camera couldn’t be done from the web a year ago.”
Was Zuckerberg wrong?
Mark Zuckerberg this week said that Facebook had made mobile mistakes, and would move to native apps. This was widely reported as a “goodbye to HTML”, but that would be a misinterpretation of a relaxed presentation by the Facebook founder, said Eich: “I don’t know where Mark got his media training.”
Big companies in the First World, like Facebook, can afford the expense of building and maintaining multiple native apps, he said, but it’s beyond the smaller players that Firefox OS hopes to enable. And that is before the app stores take their cut: Apple’s 30 percent revenue share was famously what persuaded the FT to go to HTML5, Eich pointed out.
Even Apple started out with a web approach, Eich reminded, not setting up the App Store for more than a year. “We saw Apple pick the web as their first platform, uplift it somewhat with some custom CSS extensions – which should have been standardised quicker,” he said. “Then they kind of swerved away from that to do the native stack – and made it necessary to use the App Store.”
It’s worked for Apple and successful iPhone developers, but it won’t work for everyone. Most Android apps use a “freemium” model, where they app is free and takes payments while in use, like Angry Birds. ” You can do freemium in web apps,” said Eich. “We are talking to global partners – and people like Telefonica can take payments direct to the bill.”
Competition? Bring it on!
The really interesting thing about Firefox OS is Eich’s attitude to competition. As with the arrival of the Chrome browser, he welcomes it, as it proves the concept. Samsung’s Tizen may be a proprietary platform, but it is also based on a Linux kernel and uses the HTML5 to run apps.
Tizen is using the same APIs as Firefox to control the phone hardware, said Eich: “That means you get two implementations and can get all the bugs out of the spec.”
“We don’t want Firefox OS everywhere, we want everyone to use a web based OS,” said Eich. “We are pioneering a new category: Boot to Web.”
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