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Will Firefox OS change the face of smartphone operating systems?

Although Firefox is targeting the budget market with its yet unreleased smartphones, will Firefox OS cause a stir in the mobile ecosystem? What could it mean for other mobile operating systems?
By
May 7, 2013
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.

[quote qtext=”we bring web connectivity to people who cannot afford smartphones” qperson=”” qsource=”” qposition=”center”]

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.

[quote qtext=”We use completely open standards and there’s no proprietary software or technology involved.” qperson=”” qsource=”” qposition=”right”]

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:

[quote qtext=”(we) don’t have the problem that a very low end phone doesn’t get newer versions of the operating system” qperson=”” qsource=”” qposition=”center”]

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.

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.

[quote qtext=”“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.”” qperson=”” qsource=”” qposition=”center”]

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.