With Apple (iOS) and Google (Android) so thoroughly dominating the mobile OS market, it certainly seems unlikely that they will be unseated from their lofty perches any time soon. However, a new competitor has recently emerged in the mobile platform game, Mozilla’s Firefox OS, and it brings with it a number of compelling features which suggest it just might emerge as a viable rival. Announced last year as Boot to Gecko, the project is designed to generate an unprecedented level of compatibility between smartphones and the internet. Should the venture prove successful, it could potentially usher in a line of highly intuitive, simple, cheaply-priced smartphones, an appealing prospect indeed, and considering the fact that the platform has found support with a number of large telecoms like Spring and Telefónica, it seems likely that some level of success is imminent. The ultimate pursuit of Mozilla’s efforts is inclusion, both of the strapped for cash and the technologically shaky, as well as the disgruntled app developer.
The foundation of the project is HTML5, which implies a great deal of freedom for online content developers. Previously, apps for platforms like Android and iOS would have to be tailored specifically to their unique specifications, but apps created for Firefox OS would have no such restrictions. Basically, if it works on the internet it’ll work on Firefox OS. The platform is basically a series of bookmarks, with everything, from the dialer on down, linking on an online page. This does mean that the majority of apps will only be available to online users, but Mozilla is working diligently in the pursuit of making as many pages available offline as possible. Some, like the aforementioned dialer, will only need to be accessed online once: the first time it is used. From there, it can store data, phone numbers for example, to be used offline, meaning that you don’t need an internet connection to place phone calls. You will also be offline access to other programs which store data directly on the phone, like the camera and video player. However, you will need to log in to receive updates and to access most pages.
Online or Bust
Limited offline content is probably the biggest hurdle Firefox OS users will have to traverse. In the end, I feel the success of the service will depend largely upon whether or not users find that the benefits of platform based in HTML5 outweigh the encumbrances. Yes, the amount of content available offline is, for the present time, quite limited, but the potential of the device lies in what’s going on online. The apps available for Firefox OS will not be as polished or smooth as those on iOS or Droid, but their level of diversity could potentially dwarf that of their competitors, and it is from this potential that Firefox OS gains its clout as a hypothetical platform.
Developer Satisfaction and the Cloud
Working from HTML5 means that apps will be easy to create, update and host. Also, they will not need to conform to any specific specifications. Plus, this interconnectivity goes both ways, allowing HTML5 applications to utilize the features of the phone itself, the camera and address book for example. For the first time, pages which are completely online would be able to interact directly with your specific phone, outfitting a universal experience with a much more personal dynamic. These features, if properly utilized, represent a new and exciting way of interrelating with the internet, simultaneously promoting increased freedom and interactivity at the benefit of both the user and the developer.
There is also a bit of a cloud element to Mozilla’s project which is worth mentioning, even if it’s certainly not the focus of their advertising or their platform. Using a program called Persona, you could ensure that any device upon which you have bookmarked an app/page or stored some data would share that information with any others upon which Firefox OS has been downloaded, meaning that any apps you downloaded on your phone would be usable on, say, your computer. In this way, you could ensure that if your smartphone is broken or stolen all you have saved therein would not be lost. Such a feature would be an easy way to back up your address book to make sure you never have to go through the arduous process of replacing your contacts list again.
I suppose the main question here really is whether or not Firefox OS stands a chance against Droid or iOS or whether it’s more of a gimmick, a one trick pony to use a tired parlance. As previously stated, the fact that so little is made available offline is quite a large blow to the platform. Also, there is the simple issue of brand name recognition. Droid and the whole iFamily are, of course, very commonly accepted members of the mobile OS community, and the average user will generally be more inclined to go with a familiar brand. However, I feel that Firefox has more than enough potential to be worth a good look. The level of interactivity it promises between the web and the smartphone is incredibly compelling and perhaps even revolutionary. If all is as promised, the ease with which apps could be created and viewed would be unprecedented, and the idea of being able to interact with the internet directly with your phone, with the experience tailored to your unique data, is quite exciting. Basically, Firefox OS promises to turn your phone into a little computer, limitations included, with which you can make calls, and viewed that way its issues seem a bit more forgivable. Yes, Firefox OS isn’t for everyone, but if its unique specifications sound tempting I do recommend expelling a bit of time and energy to learn more.
So when will you be able to get your hands on a Firefox OS-compatible device? Well, it’s pretty hard to say. The platform is currently still under development, so don’t expect to see it become commercially available until next year. Brazil gets first crack at it, with a promised release date of, simply and vaguely, early 2013. No release date for any other countries has been announced so as it stands I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. When the devices do arrive they will most likely be quite cheap by smartphone standards, attempting to target first-time buyers and those on a tighter budget while also offering an olive branch to the tech-savvy crowd to at least try something new. If I were you, I’d keep a look out. The level of openness and freedom promised by Mozilla with Firefox OS is more than enough to make me feel compelled.