Will Firefox OS change the face of smartphone operating systems?

May 7, 2013
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Firefox OS fox phone logo

The jury is still out on whether Firefox OS poses a legitimate threat to the mobile OS status-quo; many are writing it off for simply being too late to the party and others are quietly rooting for their favorite browser developer. Whilst Android, or any other mobile OS for that matter, obviously isn’t going to be overtaken overnight, Firefox OS poses some interesting questions for the future of smartphone software.

As a big open-source fan I see bags of potential in the fledgling operating system, it’s something which I believe could be a big changer in the mobile OS space. So, let’s take an in-depth look at what Firefox OS brings to the table.

The Vision

Firefox OS isn’t aiming for top spot competition with the Galaxy S4, HTC One, Nexus 4, or the iPhone 5. Instead, Mozilla wants to replace the plethora of aging handsets which still populate emerging markets with cheap, Internet-connected smartphones. You have to admit that the memories of using the web on an old Sony Ericsson or flip-cover Motorola seem horribly clumsy by modern standards.

we bring web connectivity to people who cannot afford smartphones

By making use of web standards such as CSS, HTML5, and Java, Firefox aims to put the web at your fingertips regardless of your means or budget. Mozilla has clearly taken some inspiration from Chrome OS, loading applications through web browser technologies rather than through the main OS. You could consider some something akin to a “compatibility layer,” where apps function independently of the operating system.

As always, open-source is at the core of what Firefox is aiming to do. Freeing developers from the restraints and demands placed on them by Apple and Microsoft, but without the fragmentation presented by Android.

We use completely open standards and there’s no proprietary software or technology involved.

This opens the door for app developers to flock to the platform, and there are many already working in the HTML5 and Java space. This will no-doubt be a key factor in determining the success of Mozilla’s operating system.

For a complete view of what Firefox OS aims to achieve, Darcy LaCouvee’s first look at Firefox OS is worth a watch:

Hardware

Firefox’s greatest strength as a fledgling platform lies in its low price point for consumers and, just like Android, an absence of licensing costs for manufacturers. You may have heard that Firefox OS runs perfectly fine on just 256MB RAM and cheap 1GHz single-core CPUs – unlike Android Jelly Bean which requires at least 320MB RAM – which keeps compatible handsets cheap to manufacture.

The cheapest developer preview handset, named Keno, comes with a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S1 processor, 512MB RAM, with a 3.5-inch screen and support for common 3G networks. The price point; a very reasonable $119, and that was for the developer preview, the final version will likely ship with a little less memory to keep production costs down.

Geeksphone FirefoxOS handsets

The Geeksphone Keno and Peak developer handsets sold out in record time, suggesting that their’s strong interest in FireFox’s OS.

What’s more, these technologies continue to be produced at lower and lower costs as manufacturing processes improve and yields increase. So the price is expected to come down even more over the next year or two.

Software

There’s tremendous potential for Firefox OS to capture a significant share of the budget market, providing that the hardware price is right. Of course Android software doesn’t cost manufacturers anything either, but Firefox’s appeal could come from a few of the projects finer details.

Firstly, as the interview put so elegantly:

(we) don’t have the problem that a very low end phone doesn’t get newer versions of the operating system

By using web standards, new features can be easily implemented in much the same way as a Chrome, Firefox, or Safari browser update. This puts an end to the dreaded hardware fragmentation which plagues budget devices.

Android fragmented versions

This is a sight which Firefox OS users shouldn’t have to deal with; no more outdated versions or missing out on new features.

Secondly, as already mentioned, Firefox OS will run apps built from web-based languages like HTML5 or Java, which is the key to this flexibility. Essentially the idea is that, as long as your phone is good enough to run these web APIs you won’t have to worry so much about changes to your operating system or hardware specifications. Apps and features can be created and updated to work with existing web technologies, which aren’t particularly hardware- or OS-dependent.

There will obviously be performance differences between individual hardware setups, but, with low-end hardware, gaming or 3D apps aren’t too important. Instead, consumers are more interested in Internet and social functionality, rather than 4k video output.

Whilst it might seem problematic to base a handset around the web, especially when coverage can be temperamental, Firefox OS allows for app installations too. Your favourite apps will still work offline, which is massively important when it comes to roaming, and will even work with Android handsets too.

Currently, consumers in emerging markets are stuck with older Android handsets, many of them still on Gingerbread – some are on even older versions like Froyo – and even more limited OSs like Nokia’s Symbian. Many of these platforms are out of date, and some are no longer supported by app developers. With Jelly Bean or iOS features and compatible software out of reach, there’s room and a real need for cheap, internet accessable handsets.

Web applications, the way of the future?

This is where I feel Firefox OS has the potential for the biggest impact. As we’ve already discussed, Mozilla has the potential to capture a massive installation base and with it comes software developers eager to peddle their wares to a growing platform.

Picture, for a moment, your day to day smartphone uses. Chances are that your work needs consist of email checking, maybe an Office suite, and web access. Home use probably isn’t that different, Internet access for streaming video, email, social networking, you get the picture. Most of these activities take place, or could be done, using your browser, we only use dedicated apps because they are faster and usually a bit easier to use than mobile web pages.

Having said that, quite a few of us probably already use plenty of web pages which operate in the same way as a traditional application too, and have been gradually moving away from dedicated applications over the past few years. I’m currently typing this using Google Docs rather than Office, I’ve used web-based email clients for years, and I’m happily using Spotify for Chrome for music.

Chrome apps

Virtually everything you need can be accessed online these days.

We’ve already seen some more advanced uses of this sort of HTML5 development with Google’s Chrome OS, which now has large range of apps developed for its browser based platform. Firefox OS should be able to achieve a similar result, once multiple platforms begin using similar development standards it could start a change reaction which could attract even more developers.

The real benefit of a move towards an HTML5 or Java standard is that apps will be compatible across various operating systems, in the same way that websites work regardless of whether you’re viewing them on Android, iOS, or Windows. A change in focus like that would mark a pretty dramatic shift in software development, and would be a great benefit to developers and consumers alike.

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