The smartphone and tablet market today is built around a few ecosystems driven by heavyweight companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft. The ecosystems are more or less closed and most apps are tailor-made for iOS, Android or Windows Phone. But as the number of devices and ecosystems grows, it becomes increasingly expensive for developers to build native apps to support all of them. So wouldn’t it be good to in the future use the open web as a platform for mobile devices?

Last week I returned from a business trip to Madrid, where we met with people within the Firefox OS development team at Telefonica’s premises. It was impressive to see all the people working hard to bring the openness of the web to a mobile platform and even more impressive to see the Firefox OS to run on real hardware. Telenor some time ago announced support for Firefox OS, and we are now excited about hiring several additional people to Comoyo’s Engineering team that will be dedicated to working together with the Mozilla community on developing the OS.

How did it start?

In the summer of 2011 Mozilla announced a project, code-named Boot-to-Gecko (B2G), to bring the open standards web technologies to mobile devices. All user-accessible software on the devices is and will be web applications using advanced HTML5 technologies. There are device APIs defined to access the device´s hardware via JavaScript. The technology itself is named Firefox OS.

The Firefox OS consists of three main building blocks: Gaia, Gecko and Gonk. Gaia is the highest layer of the OS platform defining the user interface of Firefox OS. It is implemented entirely using HTML, CSS and JavaScript and use open web APIs to the Gecko layer. Gecko is the application runtime, including e.g. a networking stack, a graphics stack, a layout engine, a JavaScript virtual machine, and porting layers. Gonk, consists of a Linux kernel and user space hardware abstraction layer and is the porting target of Gecko, similar to ports to MacOS or Windows.

All together Gaia, Gecko and Gonk provide a full system to run on mobile devices, based on open web technologies. Firefox OS, compared to Android, consists of fewer SW layers and there is reason to expect a better, relative performance, which also the first measurements indicate.

What does this mean for the industry and why do people believe in Firefox OS?

A big part of the innovation that has happened on the internet for the past 20+ years can probably be attributed to the fact that there have been no gatekeepers when it comes to what you can use it for and what device you can access it from. Anyone can publish a web page, create a new internet service or invent a new business model.

The current mobile ecosystems embrace the internet to some extent, but are still different from a truly open web. Developing native apps today means accepting guidelines and restrictions that potentially limits what services can be developed, and how they should look. In the short run, this has been good for users, who get quality assured apps that are easy to use. But in the long run it may hamper innovation by confining it inside a frame of set rules, leaving the power to decide what the rules should be to a few mighty companies.

The mother of all ecosystems is still, and will continue to be, the Internet. The Internet as a ubiquitous data communication network creates massive network effects, and the mobile ecosystems are simply islands in this perspective. HTML5 + JavaScript is today a key application platform for web services, and we believe it will also continue to be for mobile services.

Although native apps can currently offer a better user experience, we believe that developments in browser technology will make web apps match the performance of native apps within few years. The ideal should be that apps are built using open technology standards making them usable on all devices, including smartphones. This will improve customer choice.

Firefox OS aims to extend the freedom of the internet into the mobile ecosystem, by allowing anyone to easily create a web app at the same time that they create a web page. Several players in the industry have interest in building an open alternative to the closed ecosystems, and this may help get Firefox OS the critical mass of users it needs to attract developers to include adaption of apps to Firefox OS in their plans.

Of course, there is no success guaranteed, and challenging the existing mobile ecosystems is a bold move. But there are no givens in today’s internet industry, as the devices available constantly evolve and converge, and users’ behavior can take unexpected turns.

Want to be a part of developing Firefox OS?

We in Comoyo and Telenor Digital Services are excited to be able to support this initiative. As a matter of fact, we are increasing our commitment to the development and look for excellent people who want to join our team.

Are you interested in getting involved with Firefox OS as a developers, by building apps or contributing to the OS? Sign up here to get news about our future developer community events in the Nordics.

Want to create a web app today? Here’s how to get started. Or, you can try the Firefox OS simulator

Test phone with Firefox OS at Comoyo

A shortened version of this blog post in Norwegian was published on Digi.no 19.12.2012.

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