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5 reasons to be excited about… Firefox OS

ElliotBentley
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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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