I believe Firefox OS may be on to something


A few days ago, during the Mobile World Congress, Firefox announced its mobile OS, which will be available soon. Teaming up with 18 carriers and 4 announced manufacturers (plus Sony), the release was probably bigger than expected. A few high-profile web services, including AirBnb, Disney, Facebook, SoundCloud and Twitter, also joined the hype by including their apps to the new marketplace. Analysts quickly put down their bets, some supporting the effort, while others denying the possibility of its success. One of the most fascinating things about the new OS is that it's going to be entirely web based, the operating system itself, the apps, everything. Unlocking the power of the web, as they put it. And to be honest, I can buy that.

The situation

Currently, the mobile OS market is dominated by two players, Apple and Google. They both have their own strategies, Apple being the control-freak offering exclusivity, and Google being the easy-going dude appealing to the masses. Windows is trying to find its place somewhere in-between, but it's still struggling to gain its market share (currently at around few percent) - we will see how their partnership with Nokia turns out in the long run. We mustn't also forget about Blackberry and their potential comeback with their new operating system and the newly introduced Z10 smartphone. But that's about it.

Until Firefox OS was introduced.

The history

To begin with, we must take a look at the original Firefox browser, the first-choice browser of the developer a few years ago. That is before Chrome managed to offer a stabler and faster version of it. What made Firefox so useful, were the Javascript console and Firebug, an add-on that all web developers need once they try out. But Firebug supposedly makes Firefox work much slower. Chrome built such a tool for client-side debugging inside its browsers and boom - millions of developers switched to Chrome. I don't know why Firefox hasn't offered a similar tool, they should, especially now, when they have a chance not only to gain mobile OS market share, but also to regain their position in the browser wars. They should fully unlock the power of the web, with their potential mobile OS and browser marketing synergies. Firefox = the internet.

The web is wonderful, and Firefox has always been one of its strongest advocates. And now they are doing it again, by offering an operating system that is fully based on the web. Besides, for many reasons, they are probably in a much better position to do it then WebOS was. Or as they put it:

With Firefox OS, you can simply enter any search term and instantly create a one-time use or downloadable app.

The community

Developers are an important part of every mobile ecosystem, and developing for different platforms is a big pain in the ass. Of course, everybody has the possibility to decide for HTML app instead of a native app, but if the platform prefers native apps, it's a no brainer that those will have more capabilities and better performance. But it's hard to make native apps. I am a web developer, been doing it for years, tried to develop something for iOS one day. I lost interest in a few days, because you need to get used to a totally new environment, and the thought of going through the same with Android and Windows just made me depressed. But here's what Firefox says:

Every Web developer can easily create and distribute HTML5 apps so you can find an app for whatever you want.

Holy crap, the web as the platform! Which means I will be able to make Firefox OS apps already from the start. And when I have that HTML5 app, will I perhaps be willing to easily turn it into a hybrid native / HTML5 app for all other platforms? The thought is appealing. And since HTML5 is powerful enough to access the phone's hardware (camera, GPS, etc.), this makes it much more interesting. Not to mention I would be improving my basic web developer skills if I would start developing for Firefox OS.

The recipe

Firefox OS has the carriers, manufacturers and supporters aboard, and if developing and deploying apps will be as easy peasy as they brag about it, it will all come down to a single thing: the interface and user experience that the rendering engine will be able to provide. Firefox has its own rendering engine Gecko, contrary to WebKit, which powers Chrome, Safari and Opera. Based on the first videos of the Firefox OS, it seems the interface isn't as smooth as the one you can get from the iPhone, Android or Windows Phone, and not as innovative as Ubuntu Touch. Which can be a big, big problem. Manufacturers may need and support alternatives, but it's the users who will decide, and their expectations are very high.

If Firefox can take care of this, and (stronger) devices are fully adjusted to run it, while developers are able to upgrade the user experience, I don't see a reason why Firefox OS shouldn't gain traction. All the components are there, the brand is strong and the race is long. Go Firefox!

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written 2.3.2013 23:27 CET on chronolog
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