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9/10/2012
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Mozilla's Firefox OS Seeks Innovation Without Gatekeeping

Mozilla aspires to turn Web technology into an open mobile platform that offers an alternative to proprietary platforms offered by Apple and Google.

"Other smartphones have a single, proprietary technology owner," said Andreas Gal, director of research at Mozilla, who envisions multiple stores for Web apps. "Anybody who would like to facilitate discovery or the sale of apps can run a store on the Web."

Carlos Domingo, Telefonica Digital's director of product development and innovation, said one of the goals of Firefox OS is to provide a way for consumers to move from one smartphone to another without losing their content.

"Today if you have an iPhone, people spend $100 to $150 on content and applications," Domingo said. "And if tomorrow you want to buy an Android or a Windows phone, you basically need to start from scratch and re-acquire all your applications and content. That's not good for mobile operators."

By pricing Firefox OS phones to appeal to feature phone buyers--feature phones being less capable and less powerful than smartphones--Mozilla hopes to win customers in emerging markets. It is making a deliberate choice not to challenge Apple and Google head-on for premium customers. That's what Microsoft is doing, says Kovacs, who thinks that's a mistake.

Saving mobile from proprietary platforms may also save Mozilla, which saw its relevance decline as the focus of the tech industry shifted from desktop to mobile devices. Beyond reasserting itself as a champion for openness in the curated, controlled mobile world, Mozilla may also be able to diversify its sources of funding. Through Firefox OS, Mozilla will have the opportunity to add value for mobile operators and presumably to negotiate some compensation for that. For example, Firefox OS will initially be designed to work with carrier billing, which is a more efficient way to monetize apps in markets like Latin America where a significant portion of the customer pool does not have access to credit cards.

There are potential pitfalls, such as lack of developer enthusiasm for mobile Web applications and patent litigation. But these can be overcome. If a few companies prosper by monetizing mobile Web apps through carrier billing, developers are likely to become less skeptical of the new kid on the block. Brendan Eich, CTO of Mozilla, said he continues to be convinced that Web technology stack can compete with native development options.

Eich acknowledged that Mozilla still is wary about mobile patents, which Apple and Google have been wielding as weapons against one another. While there's concern about things like multi-touch in the W3C, he said, "some of these patents are very specific so it's easy to find workarounds." He stressed that W3C standardization makes technology available on a royalty-free basis and that, while he could not guarantee there will be no infringement claims, "so long as we try to standardize with enough partners, I think we have strength in numbers."

That's what Firefox OS needs--large numbers of users. In another 12 to 24 months, we should have a better sense of whether Mozilla's mobile operating system has the numbers to survive and thrive.

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