Will Firefox OS change the face of smartphone operating systems?

May 7, 2013
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A potential end to closed and fragmented platforms

Taking this potential to its full conclusion, there doesn’t appear to be a particular need for traditional smartphone operating systems anymore, at least when it comes to the most day to day tasks.

Sure, operating system designers can, and do, try to provide unique content locked to their platform, and there will probably always be a place for unique platform features. But could a closed platform really compete with a truly open market for software?

If the only thing holding back easier development is the split between operating systems, platforms like Chrome and Firefox could really cause a huge shakeup, providing that they can capture a large enough install base to incentivise investment.

If you want an example of the broad range of software available through HTML 5, recently Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3 was made compatible with HTML5, and can be accessed through a new nightly build of Firefox’s web browser without any additional plugins or software downloads. Don’t forget that games like Quake 2 were also been ported to HTML and Java some years ago.

Of course you’ll still need decent enough hardware to run it, so don’t expect high quality gaming on cheap smartphones. This just serves as an example as to how a range of software can be provided without the need for specific software.

With very light operating systems, like Firefox OS, HTML could prove to be a simple solution for gaming, and is certainly a viable option for less demanding pieces of software. Whilst this technology still needs refinement, it certainly begs the question: will we still need traditional operating systems in a few years time?

A shift like this would enable software developers to program for a single platform, yet allow users to run their software regardless of the exact operating system powering their handset. No more iOS, Android, Linux, or Windows fragmentation, third party software could all be accessed through a browser, which is surely a good thing for everyone concerned.

Putting it all together

The real question is this: can Firefox OS garner enough support to make it a success? After all, it’s going to need third party developers to hop on board to make it truely popular, but that will only happen with a decent install base. So will handsets based on Firefox actually sell?

Mozilla’s upcoming smartphones will be made available first in five emerging countries in June of this year; Brazil, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and Venezuela. Firefox OS will then launch in another 11 countries before the end of the year. Traditionally high-end markets like the U.S. and UK won’t be targeted sometime until 2014, which makes a lot of sense based on the typical handsets sold in these regions.

As we know, the phones will be cheap, which should help initial adoption, but there could be problems for a data dependent operating system in budget oriented markets. Data may not be particularly expensive, and even though prepaid plans reign supreme, there is an initial cost to overcome which could prove to be a barrier to entry for some users.

“we are going to markets where people actually pay by the megabyte.. as the apps are HTML5 they are much smaller than their equivalents in the Android market.”

Fortunately, app caching and smaller files installation files will help to keep data costs down, so perhaps this isn’t anything to be too concerned about.

Taking on the competition

As with every new venture, it’s a gamble, and it’s still certainly possible that all the effort put into this aspiring operating system could all be for nought. On the other hand if it does take off, Android and iOS could soon have a serious contender in the smartphone market. Although they might not be competing directly on handsets, there’s a significant share of the market up for grabs in emerging economies.

On top of all that, a further shift over to web apps could mark an interesting change in the smartphone market, which would undoubtedly cause Google and Apple to reconsider how they run their own operating systems. Will they both continue to offer traditional apps, or be forced to move into the HTML5 space? Will Apple still be able to attract top app developers if the majority of consumers are on open-source platforms? And will Android have to finally address problems with fragmentation?

Firefox OS handset
Of course all this hinges on Firefox OS gaining traction, which really boils down to whether users can break old habits and move away from traditional operating systems in favour of working on the web? For budget handsets at least, I see no reason why users won’t snap up this opportunity to get themselves online.

Comments

  • Alex

    There one thing I would like to see here, is the way Mozilla is calling ISP/Operators attention. They will get full access to the OS, and we all know where to normally goes.. And I hear something about Stores blocked for each ISP.

  • ChromeDroid

    Seriously Chrome and Android need too merge. customers and developers will have the choice to pick from natively written apps and html5 apps, thus creating a platform thats the best of both worlds

  • Mike Bastable

    Roberts articles continue tot be the best on this site, comprehensive land not pandering to Android fanboys…explains the black of comments.
    Keep up the good work man

  • gargamel

    Actually, Symbian is more advanced and feature-rich as an OS than JB… true multitasking anyone?

    • Arsenal™

      symbian whaaaaat? :)

      • URNumber6

        gargamel is right. The S60 ui layer on Symbian was stale and fusty but underneath was a hugely powerful, functional OS.

    • http://www.facebook.com/nhoxdung1998 Võ HoĂ ng TrĂ­ DĹ©ng

      Yeah, that’s why Nokia lost its handset sales lead. And not to mention, it keeps dropping :D.

      • URNumber6

        NOKIA only lost its smartphone sales lead after the CEO publicly deprecated Symbian.

        It keeps dropping now because they’re exclusively offering Windows Phone handsets which no manufacturer has succeeded with.

        • Bridget Arnelle

          The funny thing about the WP8 exclusive thing. There’s some budget phones they have planned that don’t have WP8 at all… So, I think Mr. Elop needs to get his head out of MS’ arse and figure out how to manage a business without Ballmer’s dis/approval. >:C

          Note: I do own a WP8 phone, but I think there’s more to a phone than it’s OS, it needs to be well built all around and affordable and I don’t see that with a WP8-only approach IMO.

  • chrisnof

    Nice article, thanks.
    However, it’s HTML, CSS and Javascript, not Java…

  • Arthur Vincent Simon

    This has potential since developers will have to worry less(or not at all) about fragmentation, making it easier to develops. Not to mention that almost every developer is already familiar with HTML5

    I also would like to see it available more in emerging markets earlier. I just wonder how they will market it though. Through a carrier? A distributor? dedicated store?

  • Anirudh

    Ohh So they Say “we bring web connectivity to people who cannot afford smartphones”

    So Firefox users might not have money to spend on smartphones but can pay for extra carrier data charges for using those web apps”

    • URNumber6

      You misunderstand web apps, they are built using web technologies (HTML/JS/CSS) but are cached (installed) locally. They will not incurr any more data charges than native apps doing the same job.

    • Bridget Arnelle

      Not exactly. It’ll be using the HTML 5 specs for local storage, which makes most web apps effectively local apps. What qualifies the ‘web’ part of web app here is the fact they’re written to run in a browser using HTML, CSS, JS (or NaCL and Rust), which makes the browser more or less an app engine at its heart.

      This is not to say this is a problem free approach. IMO it’s going to be a nasty experience when some web app developers begin to realize their apps are poorly designed to handle a wide variety of cases in hardware and network connectivity (bandwidth and latency). It’s sort of like how the early console games had to use hacks to work within very limited memory capacities like Metroid. It’ll be fun to see these Ruby and other web language kiddies learn how to manage memory without pointers. >:3

  • Marc Diethelm

    Seriously. It’s JavaScript, not Java. You’re talking about web frontend technologies here.

  • http://twitter.com/lukamlinar Luka Mlinar

    This is like chrome OS but on a phone. If i understand it.

  • dgarra

    I’ve never been a fan of Firefox so I’m cautiously optimistic on this one. Seems like it’d make more sense for Chromium to come to phones.

  • nishantsirohi123

    this is a good idea.

    why not have chrome os ported to a tablet

    with detachable keyboard

  • shadow

    The guy in the video is perfect for a firefox ambassador! :p

  • Bridget Arnelle

    Yeah, it’s JS, not Java. But the idea is that we’re looking for a way to get around kludges like AJAX to actually produce code that runs at approximately native compiled speeds which is what ASM.js (and NaCL in Chrome) aims to do. It’s meant to get rid of plugin architecture entirely (yay!) and focus on providing a seamless experience between a ‘web’ app running from a local storage location and a website which can update that app with new features, data, and etc. So, you don’t have to be tied to Google, Microsoft, or Amazon. You get to control your data once again. Open garden vs Walled Garden is what this is all about.