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.

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