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5 reasons to be excited about… Firefox OS

Elliot Bentley
firefoxos1

Having sparked a browser revolution, the open source browser now has its sights trained on the mobile market.

The
latest entrant in the booming smartphone (and tablet) market is
Firefox OS,
previously known as Boot To Gecko, or B2G.

Having sparked a browser revolution when it challenged Internet
Explorer’s tyrannical reign, the open source browser now has its
sights trained on the mobile behemoths of iOS and Android.

But the mobile market is savage, with even Microsoft failing to
make much traction with Windows Phone 7. So how can Mozilla triumph
where MS failed? Why should we, as consumers and (more importantly)
developers be excited about Firefox OS? Here’s five reasons for
starters:

1. Apps are coded in HTML5 and JavaScript

In keeping with Mozilla’s web-centric mission, Firefox OS runs
nothing but the web, allowing ‘native’ apps to be made with merely
HTML5 and JavaScript. HTML5 web app functions like local storage
are supplemented with standardised APIs for
accessing hardware functions and other OS elements.

It’s worth noting that these web apps aren’t just iOS-style home
screen bookmarks – they’re OpenWebApps,
cross-platform packages also
able to run on Firefox for Android
and any other OS that wants
to adopt the format. This comes with the added benefit of being
deployed via app stores (Mozilla’s flagship store or
otherwise), with paid options too.

Firefox OS is by no means the first operating system to allow
‘apps’ to be developed using web technologies: webOS (now
open-sourced by HP) did it first, and more recently it has been
added as an option for
Metro-style apps in Windows 8
and for the upcoming
BlackBerry 10 OS
. But webOS has seen near-zero uptake beyond
enthusiasts, while the other platforms’ implementations are cynical
attempts to bulk their anaemic app stores.

2. The OS is coded in HTML5 and JavaScript

What marks Firefox OS out from the competition is that its use of
web apps isn’t a cynical ploy to attract developers – it’s an
integral part of the operating system. All of its core apps –
phone, texts and even the camera – are written in HTM5, and this
even extends to the home menu and lock screen.

Not only is it neat, but it means that customisation is trivial. In
a blog post called “There
Is Something Magical About Firefox OS
”, Mozilla Technical
Evangelist Rob Hawkes wrote:

You could literally change one line of CSS and completely change
the way the icons on the homescreen look, or re-write some core
JavaScript files that handle phone-calls.

If one of the killer features of Android is its customisability,
imagine the possibilities of an OS with an even lower requirements
for entry.

 

The Firefox OS interface may look
familiar, but it’s pure HTML.

 

3. It might dominate the low end of the
market

Not everyone wants to spend hundreds of dollars on a
top-of-the-range iPhone or Galaxy S3 to get a full smartphone
experience. Firefox OS is being explicitly positioned as a cheaper
alternative, with higher performance than Android even on less
powerful hardware.

That’s the marketing line, at least, and until the OS ships it’ll
be difficult to obtain meaningful benchmarks. As Mozilla CTO
Brendan Eich
explained to TechWeekEurope
:

“We are using the shared resource of Linux on smartphones,
building on a kernel that Qualcomm and the like already know how to
build a phone on. On top of that we are only adding the web, so we
have a thinner stack.”

Android has to have a Java virtual machine, and a layer of
middleware, the native app layer. “That is a hungry mouth to feed
and we don’t need that,” said Eich.

4. It’s (truly) open

Of the big two mobile OSs, there’s no question that Android is the
most open. But it’s developed in secret, with Google maintaining

tight control
over what can and can’t be done with their
operating system. This leaves a gap in the market for a truly open
alternative, one developed by the community and overseen by a
benevolent organisation like Mozilla – better for consumers and
developers alike. (And while it may not be Java-based, it’s the
next best thing.)

Of course, this (along with point #2) opens the OS up to the risk
of being smothered by handset manufacturers and cellphone networks
with layers of awful software. Indeed, OEM customisation is the
OS’s second selling point on the official site.
Customisability can be both blessing and a curse.

5. It’s ready to develop for, now

Firefox OS phones may still be in the pipeline, but Mozilla has
already released a handful of app development tools – the most
accessible being a desktop Firefox plugin,
r2d2b2g
, which comes bundled with the latest build and a
(somewhat buggy) simulator.

So why not have a go porting an existing web app over, or just have
a play? There’s plenty more information on developing apps in this
blog post
on Mozilla Hacks
and at the Mozilla Developer
Network
.

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