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Firefox OS: Will Mozilla's Secret Sauce Be Enough?

Firefox OS: Will Mozilla's Secret Sauce Be Enough?

In a mobile arena already heavily dominated by Android and iOS, can Mozilla's young, open upstart OS really hope to succeed? Its chances are "actually surprisingly good," opined Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group. "Google has done a poor job of protecting and nurturing their licensees, and they have also moved to doing their own hardware."

By Dietrich T. Schmitz LinuxInsider ECT News Network
06/20/13 5:00 AM PT

There's something eternally compelling about the ages-old story of David and Goliath, and it's one we've seen play out time and time again in modern form in the tech world.

We've seen Samsung's Galaxy S and Galaxy Tab surge in popularity to challenge Apple's iPhone and iPad, respectively; we've seen streaming music service Spotify and others grab market share away from Apple's iTunes -- to name just two examples. Today, however, we're witnessing a similar scenario in the mobile arena with the emergence of Firefox OS.

Can Firefox OS take on not just one but two industry heavyweights -- not to mention a raft of smaller contenders? Time will tell, but so far indications are looking good.

Promising Beginnings

Following its birth in 2011 via Mozilla's "Boot to Gecko" project, Firefox OS soon garnered support from Spanish telecommunications company Telefonica. Adobe, Qualcomm and Deutche Telekom threw their hats into the ring shortly thereafter.

In July 2012, the project was rebranded as "Firefox OS" -- positioning it with branding consistency directly next to Mozilla's most famous and popular open source project, the Firefox Web browser -- and during the 2013 Mobile Web Conference, Mozilla announced marketing plans for a global rollout, including manufacturing deals with ZTE, LG and Huawei.

In April, the first Firefox OS developer phones sold out almost immediately.

More recently, iPhone maker Foxconn jumped on board the Firefox OS bandwagon, announcing that it plans to make a line of tablets and smartphones using the open OS.

What is Firefox OS?

Like Android, Firefox OS is a Linux-based operating system designed for mobile devices, only applications are written in HTML5.

Three layers make up the OS:

  • Gonk: A Linux kernel and user-space hardware abstraction layer;
  • Gecko: An application run-time stack layer; and
  • Gaia: A graphical user interface presentation layer.

As with other Linux-based mobile platforms, Firefox OS bootstraps into a Linux kernel and couples to a custom Gecko runtime ported to Firefox OS having the addition of a telephony stack and display frame buffer. With Gaia providing what the user sees, these layers integrate to provide for all intents and purposes a simplified Linux distribution.

What Makes Firefox OS Different?

During the late '90s, onetime Internet technology giant AOL's "walled garden" approach was ultimately rejected, and a major business contraction and downturn resulted for the company.

Many seasoned users today have cultivated a better understanding of smartphone technology, and while Apple's iOS walled garden does ensure better application curation, "tech savvy" users now tend to perceive Android smartphones as being more customizable, easier to use and less restrictive.

Of course, in terms of user expectations, if Firefox OS is going to garner market share, it needs to be competitive with both iPhone and Android smartphone offerings, including ease of use and customizability.

"Phone OS choice is seldom up to the consumer," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told LinuxInsider. "The firms that make that choice are the carriers and phone manufacturers."

If Samsung were to use Firefox OS, for example, "they would likely put one of the most advanced and one of their most attractively priced phones on it, and either could attract consumers," Enderle said. "The OS itself is very like iOS and Android, so it would be the solution that would attract users, and the solution is up to the OEM."

The OEM Factor

There are plenty of reasons why OEMs might be attracted to Firefox OS.

For example, recall that Google owns and sells the now highly regarded and elite Nexus smartphone. It also owns Motorola Mobility, which has its own designs on selling smartphones running Android directly alongside Google's Nexus line.

The Nexus line is recognized as being "first in line" to receive any new major revisions and updates to the Android operating system. All other OEMs must wait, usually several months, to receive the same updates to brand to their own phones.

That puts Google at a distinct advantage in providing a more attractive purchase option.

OEMs that prefer to avoid dependence on Google now have Firefox OS as an alternative.

'Google Has Done a Poor Job'

Will Firefox OS succeed in a crowded market?

To be sure, it faces strong competition given its newcomer status and an already crowded market shared predominantly by Android OEMs and Apple's iPhone.

So, realistically, what are its chances for success?

"Actually surprisingly good," Enderle opined. "Google has done a poor job of protecting and nurturing their licensees, and they have also moved to doing their own hardware."

Microsoft's deal with Nokia, meanwhile, "creates similar concerns, and the platform has fallen short of expectations," he added.

So, "a Google-like solution from a friendlier, hardware-independent Mozilla is getting a lot of attention, especially from Samsung, which is Google's strongest and most-upset partner on Android," Enderle said.

Developer Interest

Of course, it's widely agreed that success in the mobile arena depends largely on apps, but Mozilla has made considerable headway there as well.

A Firefox OS simulator has been available for several months from Mozilla, and more recently developer phones materialized.

Two such phones -- from Spanish manufacturer Geeksphone, named the Keon and Peak -- are being circulated in the developer community, with the Keon model being characterized as close to an iPhone replacement.

As for the difficulty of writing applications, Firefox OS apps are HTML5-based, so experience with Web-based HTML5 application coding is comparable.

Firefox OS developers can also access Mozilla's Developer Hub to find all related programming tools, including the simulator, Firefox OS API documentation and technical support.

The Firefox Marketplace, where purchasers of said phones will find a growing list of Firefox OS apps, is already online and open for business.

'Yes They Can'

Can Firefox OS succeed in breaking the ever-strengthening grip of the Android/iPhone duopoly?

"Yes they can," wireless analyst Jeff Kagan told LinuxInsider. "The next few years is a great opportunity for them. Let's see if they can make it happen."

Mozilla's best chance at success may well hinge on sales to first-time buyers of smartphones who have not yet cultivated a sense for what makes one smartphone better than another, and who will find the Firefox OS easy to use and its feature set more than adequate.

Of course, "Mozilla doesn't have the funding that Google does, and much of their existing funding comes through Google, which suggests that -- should Google get upset with their effort -- they could be at some financial risk," Enderle cautioned. "Concerns about this risk are likely holding back some from adopting this platform."

'Relegated to the Lower End'

Vishal Jain, an analyst for mobile services at 451 Research, saw things a bit more pessimistically.

Firefox OS's chances for success are minimal, Jain told LinuxInsider, "since it is trying to compete with Android, and there are others like Tizen and Jolla vying with a HTML5-based architecture.

"Mozilla is rallying behind operators and trying to get them to roll out devices, and it is difficult to get all of the operators to agree on a standard," Jain added. "Even if they do, Mozilla is expected to be relegated to the lower end of the market."

Promising Beginnings

The bottom line? Any new technological undertaking of this magnitude, however good, comes with an attendant high risk of failure.

Of course, nobody could have predicted five years ago that Nokia would be in the difficult straits they face now.

So, there's as good a chance that Firefox OS will succeed provided they can react quickly and deliver a reasonably good product at an economically affordable price. By all accounts, they are off to a very good start.


Dietrich T. Schmitz is a Health Care IT Consultant based in New York. He can be found on Google+; a Perl Success Story for one of his projects is available on OReilly.com.


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