An introduction to Firefox OS for mobile developers: Q&A with Andreas Gal, Mozilla

With the first device manufacturers expected to launch Firefox OS devices at Mobile World Congress this month and with major network operators inline to release them to consumers in early 2013, Mozilla’s new operating system (OS) is starting to make waves. Firefox OS is open-source, Linux-based and Web-friendly. mobiForge gets the low-down from Mozilla’s vice president of mobile engineering, Andreas Gal.

Q1. What is Firefox OS?
The Firefox OS is a new mobile ecosystem built entirely to open Web standards, including HTML5. It will enable the development of smartphones where every feature can be developed as an HTML5 application. There are many benefits of the Firefox OS that appeal to operators and device manufacturers, which include:

  • Delivering a better smartphone experience to a higher proportion of the population, especially at the low end of the device range portfolio.
  • It will be truly open, bringing the benefits of Web technologies to mobile and eliminating current roadblocks and limitations.
  • It provides true cross platform opportunities for application developers, most of whom already develop in HTML5

The first devices powered by Firefox OS are expected to launch in Brazil and other territories in the region in early 2013.

Q2. What’s the philosophy behind it?
At Mozilla, doing good is part of our code. The idea behind Firefox OS is to gain freedom from proprietary mobile platforms, and the growing, global support for the project is an important proof point of the momentum behind Firefox OS. There is a need for operators today to be able to keep user relationships beyond the billing process and provide them with their own brand experience.

Mozilla believes the Web is the platform – this is why Firefox OS will be truly open and available to any network operators or OEM. The goal isn’t to seek competitive advantage for Mozilla, it is to seek competitive advantage for the Web.

Finally, Mozilla is focused on balancing all interests: user, developer, industry (carrier/OEM). Our status as a neutral non-profit makes this true balance possible.

  • Good for operators: Firefox OS helps to reduce hardware costs.
  • Good for developers: developers are already embracing HTML5 and building Web apps.
  • Good for the industry: open standards drive innovation (as seen by Firefox in the browser market) and key Web players are embracing HTML5.
  • Good for consumers: they get a great smartphone experience at lower price points and can keep their apps when they change device.

Q3 What is the technology behind it?
With Firefox OS, we’ve built the technologies and APIs to make the Web a rich and viable option for application developers. To date, mobile Web apps have been held back because they can’t access the device’s underlying capabilities as well as native apps can. Mozilla’s Firefox OS project overcomes these limitations and provides the necessary APIs to show how it is possible to run an entire device using open standards: Linux Kernel, device drivers and then the Web on top of it. This simplifies the technology and makes the integration point between the Web, the phone and apps much easier.

Mozilla OS icons, contacts and gallery
Figure 1: Mozilla OS in action – icons, contacts and image gallery.

Q4. What do these technologies mean for mobile developers?
Mozilla believes that HTML5 is an increasingly important technology, which more and more developers are embracing. There are already 10 million HTML5 developers out there creating applications for desktop Web browsers. Many others are developing HTML5-based mobile apps – a lot of apps on the AppStore or Android market are actually HTML5 apps wrapped in native code. The goal with Mozilla OS is to provide an environment and a platform where these Web apps can run natively on mobile devices. When HTML5 apps run natively, they can better access each handset’s functions and create a user experience that is comparable to any native app written specifically for each smartphone OS.

Firefox OS is about bringing the power of the Web developer community to mobile as a whole. It’s not just about bringing the Web development to a particular hardware platform, which was one of the issues with previous mobile OS initiatives such as WebOS and LiMo.

Using HTML5 and the new Mozilla-proposed standard APIs, developers everywhere will be able to create amazing experiences and apps. Developers will no longer need to learn and develop against platform-specific native APIs, but will be able to write a single app for all platforms. It’s a better use of their resources and will lead to more innovation.

To summarize: why should developers build for Firefox OS?

  • Closed ecosystems force developers to build native apps for each individual platform, which doesn’t scale.
  • Open HTML5 apps will let them write once and run anywhere.
  • More flexibility: it’s difficult for developers to A-B test native iOS and Android applications (A-B testing optimizes app performance).
  • For more on what HTML5 means for mobile developers read: HTML5 for mobile developers.

Q5. Who is backing it? What operators? Which hardware manufacturers? Who else?
Leading operators Deutsche Telekom, Etisalat, Smart, Sprint, Telecom Italia, Telefónica and Telenor are backing Firefox OS.
Device manufacturers TCL Communication Technology (under the Alcatel One Touch brand) and ZTE have announced their intentions to manufacture the first devices to feature the new Firefox OS, using Snapdragon processors from Qualcomm. (See the announcement here).

BlueVia is working hard to get to all relevant development environments and to enhance Telefonica’s capabilities for app and Web developers.

There will be other partnerships with additional OEMs and operators, which will be announced in due course.

Q6. Why are they backing Firefox OS (i.e. what’s in it for each of them)?
Firefox OS is completely open and based on Web standards. Just like all other Mozilla products, Firefox OS is open source – that means everyone can take, re-use and re-mix the actual code. OEMs and operators will be able to provide content and services across their entire device portfolio, regardless of OS. And they will be able to customize user experiences, manage app distribution and retain customer attention, loyalty and billing relationships.

There are no patent fees attached to Firefox OS, allowing device manufacturers to achieve a price advantage that could be passed along to users. Due to the optimization of the platform for entry-level smartphones and the removal of unnecessary middleware layers, enabling mobile operators to offer richer experiences at a range of price points. Firefox OS is particularly targeted at the low end of the smartphone price range, which will help to drive adoption across developing markets.

As a non-profit organization, Mozilla’s prime objective with Firefox OS isn’t profit, but to free device manufacturers, operators, consumers and developers from the hold of proprietary mobile platforms. Mozilla is currently evaluating different options, with primary consideration on user interests and the strategic objectives of our partners.
Mozilla believes that in the near term, the Web is the right platform, and that it needs to be open – not a dominant player’s version of the Web. Mozilla’s work developing Firefox OS – with the assistance of Telefonica Digital and numerous other partners – will begin to show what is possible and spur further innovation.

Q7. What/where will be the first devices?
The first commercially available devices are expected in LATAM in early 2013. The Geeksphone recently announced the Firefox OS Developer Preview devices, which are strictly for development and testing use. These devices have not been designed for consumers and include pre-release development versions of Firefox OS. We know that many people are excited to get their hands on Firefox OS. More details of when we will have a consumer device ready to launch and review will be available soon.

Firefox OS Developer Preview devices from Geeksphone
Figure 1: Firefox OS Developer Preview devices from Geeksphone – strictly for developers only.

Q8. Where/at whom/at what price point are Firefox OS mobile devices aimed?
The first devices will be launched in Latin America in early 2013. From the outset we will be seeking to attract people who would otherwise select a feature phone. This remains a huge proportion of mobile consumers: in 2012, 59 percent of handsets purchased worldwide were feature phones.

It’s too early to comment on the price point. We will unveil more details nearer commercial launch but it’s safe to say that the market opportunity we see is in the US$100 and below bracket.

Q9. How come Firefox OS can deliver a cheaper and better device than Android for these markets?
It is important to emphasize that this initiative is not about bringing even cheaper – or the cheapest – smartphones to market, it’s about delivering a better performance on devices, especially on those handsets at the low price point end of the devices market.

In terms of what will make Firefox OS phones more cost-effective than other smartphones, here are two examples:

  • There’s a much lighter software footprint on the device. The OS and apps are one layer closer to the hardware, so less memory and CPU is needed to give the same performance – in short, we can get more out of the hardware. Stripping out much of the middleware in the OS helps reduce unit costs.
  • There are also no patent fees attached to Firefox OS, so OEMs get a price advantage that could be passed along to users.

Mozilla is not trying to take on Android and iOS directly. There is a significant market opportunity that the incumbents aren’t catering to, which we are addressing with Firefox OS.

Q10. What are the differences between Firefox OS and a) Android b) iOS?
Both Apple and Google are strong supporters of HTML5. But Firefox OS is taking HTML5 to the next level by giving it access to even more of a handset’s underlying functions. This will allow us to bring smartphone-type devices to a market segment (the developing world) currently dominated by feature phones. iOS and Android devices do not currently cater for this market, and we don’t believe they will in the future either.

We believe that HTML5 is an increasingly important technology that more and more developers are embracing. There is an HTML5 ecosystem of developers, which is already creating applications for desktop Web browsers, while many AppStore and Android applications have already been developed in HTML5. We just want to provide an environment and a platform where these applications can run natively on mobile devices.

Q11. What are the differences between Firefox OS and a) Tizen, b) Sailfish, c) Ubuntu, d) Chrome OS? What does this mean for developers?
Firefox OS extends what developers can do with the Web, especially in the context of mobile devices, and to do so in a way that leads to interoperable standards.

While Mozilla supports other platforms that are using open standards and HTML5, it argues that the rivals do not go as far as Firefox does in applying the full power and capabilities of the Web to mobile. Neither Tizen nor Ubuntu appear to have the same broad spread of support across operators and OEMs (note that Tizen is controlled by Samsung and there is no confirmed operator or OEM backers for Ubuntu).

Q12. Why isn’t Firefox OS just going to be niche? How can it ever compete with the Android/Apple ecosystem?
Mozilla believes that near term, the Web is the right platform, and that it needs to be open. This isn’t about seeking competitive advantage for Mozilla, the goal is to gain competitive advantage for the Web.

Let’s get this straight: Firefox OS is not trying to compete on high-end devices: it will meet a global unmet need for affordable smartphones. In so doing, it will create opportunity by opening up the mobile Web to those who have thus far been denied access due to the prohibitive cost of PCs and smartphones.

Q13. Why should mobile developers develop for Firefox OS? And how do they get started?
Developers are already embracing HTML5. Please refer back to Q4 for an outline of the specific Firefox OS opportunity for developers.
Developers can now submit apps at the Firefox Marketplace. The Market Place was opened in mid-October 2012 for the early adopters on the Aurora version of Firefox for Android, and will be testing it before advancing to general release and Firefox OS. Mozilla Marketplace offers developers discovery, distribution and monetization opportunities.

Mozilla is busy working with a number of top content shops for branded content and also to the long-tail through our developer engagement program.
There is more information on developing apps for Firefox OS at the Open Web Apps project.

Q14. Will Web apps work better on Firefox than Android or iOS?
Comparing an HTML5 application’s performance with a native App is like comparing a tailored suit with one bought in a shop. Of course the tailored suit will fit you like a glove and looks amazing, but if you ever want to sell it or hand it over to someone else, you are out of luck. It will not be the same for the next person. That is what native Apps are – they are built and optimized for one single environment and purpose and are fixed in their state. This analogy is explained in more detail here.

Q15. Isn’t Google a backer of Firefox, why is it backing a potential competitor?
I can’t answer for Google. Unlike our major competitors, Mozilla achieves success by helping more people make choices about what software they want to use, what level of participation they would like to have online, and how to take part in building a better Internet. Seeing growth in the community of contributors, software localizations, and a competitive browser market, for example, all goes to show that Mozilla is making progress.

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