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Mozilla Plans Open Web Operating System

With "Boot to Gecko," Mozilla is challenging the proprietary mobile empires: Apple, Google, and Microsoft.

Mozilla's Webian Shell: A Web-Only Operating System Layer
Slideshow: Mozilla's Web-Only Operating System
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
Mozilla, the open source company behind Firefox and myriad other projects, hopes to save the Web for the second time. The first time was seven years ago, with Firefox 1.0 arrived to challenge Internet Explorer, which at the time held over 90% of the Internet browser market.

Firefox managed to reach about 25% global market share before Google, the source of most of its income, decided in 2008 that it wanted to participate in the browser wars. Firefox's market advance stalled and Google became the primary conqueror of Microsoft's dwindling browser empire. Then Google changed the game and built its own operating system, Chrome OS, around its browser. It guaranteed distribution by striking deals with hardware partners to spread its software.

Mozilla has seen the writing on the wall. It needs a foundation that puts its Web apps on an even footing with the competition. So it has launched a project called "Boot to Gecko" (B2G) to build its own Web-based operating system. Gecko is the open source layout engine used by Firefox.

"Mozilla believes that the Web can displace proprietary, single-vendor stacks for application development," Mozilla explains on its website. "To make open Web technologies a better basis for future applications on mobile and desktop alike, we need to keep pushing the envelope of the Web to include--and in places exceed--the capabilities of the competing stacks in question."

Mozilla may be too polite to mention its patron Google or its other competitors by name, but it clearly fears being marginalized by vendor-specific development stacks that promote lock-in. The company's aim is to make sure that Web apps--written in HTML5--are competitive with native apps for iPhone, Android, and Windows Phone 7, among others.

Google's Android may be open in name, but Andreas Gal, the Mozilla systems researcher who is spearheading the B2G effort, believes otherwise. "Android is not open source in the sense of 'open technology," he explained in a post to the B2G discussion group. "Android APIs are proprietary Google sauce, not broadly accepted and adopted open Web standards. At some point Android used to be at least 'available source' where Google would publish secretly/internally developed source code/technology after the fact as products ship, but even those times seem to be over now."

Mozilla sees its operating system primarily for mobile devices and tablets, through there's already some discussion of similarities between Mozilla's goals and those espoused by Webian, an open Web application shell based on Mozilla's Chromeless project that runs atop desktop operating systems.

Mozilla says it will focus on developing APIs that expose device-specific and OS-specific capabilities related to telephony, SMS, camera control, USB, Bluetooth, NFC, and other systems. Those developing modern Web standards already have been pushing in this direction. This is why Web apps on mobile devices can, for example, use JavaScript to access device orientation--a capability initially available only to those writing native mobile code.

Mozilla will be developing a privilege model, for security, and integrating low-level code for booting its operating system. In a post to the B2G discussion group, Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich said that the boot layer will be based on Android kernel and device drivers. Presumably Mozilla is satisfied that Android's core, derived from Linux, is sufficiently free of patent claims to avoid the patent litigation frenzy that has engulfed Google and its Android partners.

In the same discussion Mike Shaver, VP of technical strategy at Mozilla, said that Mozilla will continue developing Firefox for Android. However, he said that this is not enough.

"We don't feel that we can integrate as deeply as we want on stock Android, for purposes of this project's goals," he wrote in a post. "We don't want to have a browser next to the apps, we want to have the apps built with the Web platform, including the system apps like the launcher and the dialer and SMS app and even the app manager/market itself."

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