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Can Mozilla Firefox OS compete with mobile giants?

By Daniel Cawrey / May 29, 2013


Apple. Google. Blackberry. Firefox?

Mozilla Foundation, the organization behind the Firefox web browser, has built a new mobile platform: Firefox OS. Mozilla is betting this new system will be the standard for app development in the future.

Today, most platform developers create apps natively as part of the operating system. Mozilla thinks those days are coming to an end, and they intend to lead the charge.

Mozilla Firefox OS focuses on the web

Since the Mozilla Foundation’s ideology has always promoted open web standards, it’s no surprise they want the same thing for their mobile operating system. Firefox OS is basically a web browser operating as a platform, utilizing CSS, HTML5 and JavaScript standards for creating applications that are essentially web apps. That means if you can build a website, you can build a Firefox OS app. Since the Mozilla Firefox web browser is built on the web, why not port this concept over to mobile devices?

The first batch of test Firefox OS devices sold out quickly. Early adopters who didn’t get their hands on one can try the simulator as an add-on for the Firefox browser. It seems that initial developer interest is high. Taiwanese manufacturer, Foxconn, has even started developing a Firefox OS tablet.

But wireless companies are still apprehensive about bringing Firefox OS to the masses. Sprint is currently the only U.S. carrier showing interest, but there are 16 others in emerging markets like Europe and South America that could successfully fuel the launch.

Possible consequences of a web-based OS

One problem facing a web-based operating system is the constraints that wireless carriers have on data capacity. Since the OS is almost always connected to the web, it’ll require more data transmission than other smartphones and tablets. While some major wireless carriers offer “unlimited” data plans, data restrictions could have a huge impact on the viability of Firefox OS. Of course, offline access is possible, so this may not be a big barrier.

Stability could be another problem for Firefox OS. A mobile device that relies on the web to function requires a high degree of performance from its underlying technology. Rich animations and transitions have already earned the web a bad reputation, primarily because of how they’re implemented by developers of the browser and developers of the code running in the browser. We’ve all seen issues with JavaScript and HTML5 on computers, so Firefox OS devices could have the same issues, especially if they’re underpowered.

Web developer Clay Benson had this to add: “iOS is really the shining example of the best of the best when it comes to feeling native, but even with mobile Safari, a software developer who’s not well versed in the optimization of animations, transforms, and transitions will deliver a jerky, sub-par experience.”

In the end

Some experts say the Firefox OS concept harkens back to the early days of Android, when developers were excited by the seemingly endless possibilities of a new platform. But some, like Clay, remain cautious based on early experiences with the OS. Users could also prove timid, as many may not be willing to trade in a familiar OS for fledgling technology that may or may not take off.