Mozilla to the Rescue, Again?

I've written a number of posts about Mozilla's rise and fall and rise: how it went from saving the open Web and open standards in the face of the stagnation brought about by Internet Explorer 6's long dominance; to losing its way somewhat, with...


I've written a number of posts about Mozilla's rise and fall and rise: how it went from saving the open Web and open standards in the face of the stagnation brought about by Internet Explorer 6's long dominance; to losing its way somewhat, with the upstart Chrome threatening to supplant its role as the "other" browser; and finally finding a role once more as it concentrated on what it called Web apps.

Significantly, these were Mozilla's response to the closed-source apps of the iPhone and Android. In other words, what Mozilla was really saying was that it wanted to liberate the mobile sector just as it had once done on the desktop.

That was a noble vision, but Web apps in the abstract weren't going to do it: when people were offered half a million options from Apple's or Google's app stores, or a rather smaller number of Web apps, it's pretty clear which they would choose in general. The central problem for Mozilla then became: how could that natural disadvantage of being an interloper on other people's smartphone platforms be overcome? The answer turned out to be rather daring: to create its own smartphone operating system.

Although I mentioned this idea as further proof of Mozilla's renaissance, I must confess I was a little sceptical whether this would amount to much. Not, of course, for technical reasons: these people know what they are doing when it comes to building open source software. But success in the mobile world is also about getting the telecom companies on board, and I was not hopeful they would be willing to team up with the rather odd, non-commercial Mozilla Foundation. Looks like I was wrong:

Mozilla today previewed the first commercial build of its Firefox OS open mobile ecosystem and announced new operator rollout plans at a press conference before the start of Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The first wave of Firefox OS devices will be available to consumers in Brazil, Colombia, Hungary, Mexico, Montenegro, Poland, Serbia, Spain and Venezuela. Additional markets will be announced soon.

To date, 17 key operators spanning the globe have committed to the open web device initiative: América Móvil, China Unicom, Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Hutchison Three Group, KDDI, KT, MegaFon, Qtel, SingTel, Smart, Sprint, Telecom Italia Group, Telefónica, Telenor, TMN and VimpelCom. Telstra is welcoming the Mozilla initiative as an opportunity to deliver an innovative mobile Web experience to their customers. The breadth of operators now backing Mozilla's Firefox OS demonstrates significant industry support for a fully-adaptable, unconstrained mobile platform.
Firefox OS smartphones are the first built entirely to open Web standards, enabling every feature to be developed as an HTML5 application. Web apps access every underlying capability of the device, bypassing the typical hindrances of HTML5 on mobile to deliver substantial performance. The platform's flexibility allows carriers to easily tailor the interface and develop localized services that match the unique needs of their customer base.

Mozilla is working with manufacturers Alcatel (TCL), LG and ZTE to build the first Firefox OS devices, with Huawei to follow later in the year, all powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon mobile processors. In addition, Mozilla has signed strategic relationships with key content and service partners (see separate release). Consumers will get a dynamic, rich and open smartphone experience that provides easy access to everything they love on the Web, including Facebook and Twitter integration, with a simple, fast interface and built-in cost controls.

As well as being rather impressive, this press release also tells us a number of important things about Firefox OS and Mozilla's plans.

First, that many of the biggest mobile operators are, indeed, interested in this open source operating system. The reason is the same one that led to GNU/Linux being adopted by server manufacturers 15 years ago: no company owns it, which means that its users are not beholden to anyone, as they are when working with either Apple or Google. It's neutral ground that allows the telecoms companies to regain their independence. That's why open ecosystems always wins over closed ones: the latter is beneficial mainly for its owner, while the former is beneficial for everyone, equally.

Secondly, we are talking about low-cost systems, aimed at emerging countries. That's shrewd from a number of viewpoints. The mainstream smartphone market is getting extremely crowded, as everyone piles in with their Android variants – plus there's also the popular iPhone colonising much of the top end. But at the bottom, things are much more undecided. Nokia once owned this market, but through a series of mis-steps is struggling to maintain its grip there (interestingly, the company has just launched the $20 Nokia 105 that is clearly aimed at this sector.)

As with Android, Firefox OS has the huge advantage of costing nothing, and being customisable by network operators. Unlike Android, though, it is likely to work quite well even on low-power sets since it is based on HTML5 rather than Java.

On a similar note, I think it's noteworthy that there are two Chinese manufacturers named in the above release: ZTE and Huawei. This early interest may indicate that such companies see Firefox OS-based phones as a way to steal a march on the existing manufacturers that have thrown their lot in with Android. That's significant both as a vote of confidence in the approach, and because it marries a free operating system with handsets that are likely to be even cheaper than the Nokia 105. Indeed, Chinese handsets running Firefox OS may well be the phones that finally bring connectivity to the very poorest populations in the world.

Of course, it's still early days, and this recent announcement is only one milestone of many that must be passed. These include polishing the operating system and its associated code, and trying to get as many HTML5 apps ready as possible for the public launch – as Microsoft found with its Windows phone, if there aren't enough things for people to download and do, interest soon dwindles.

But judging by the reports of this weekend's launch at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, there seems to a real excitement around Mozilla's move, and in an industry as much driven by fads and feelings as by hard facts, that's got to be a good sign. It really would be wonderful if the Firefox OS ecosystem took off, and Mozilla helped save the open Web and open standards once more by offering a viable alternative to the various kinds of walled gardens Apple and Google currently offer.

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