Mozilla's 'modest proposal:' Dump the smartphone OS

Spain's Telefonica readies a phone with Boot to Gecko

Mozilla has a "modest proposal" about smartphones and it's simply stated. "Dump the operating system. All of them."

But unlike the famous essay by Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, Mozilla isn't fooling around. And at Mobile World Congress, the non-profit creator of the Firefox browser and its partner, the Spanish telecom giant Telefonica, showed just how serious they are.

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The companies unveiled details for a smartphone platform that has the merest sliver of an OS, a small Linux kernel and other low-level elements, which act mainly to support device drivers and to launch the Gecko rendering engine, the heart of Mozilla's Firefox. Coupled with a growing array of new APIs, and a user interface dubbed Gaia, the platform can fully control the phone and its features without the complexity of a conventional OS. The platform, geekily dubbed Boot to Gecko, gives users access to the ever-growing array of Web-based applications and services, and gives developers an app model based on Javascript, HTML 5 and associated standards such as CSS3. [More details are at Mozilla's B2G wiki.] 

A photo of a message thread in a Boot to Gecko smartphone UI.

Boot to Gecko was unveiled in June 2011. But with Telefonica and Qualcomm on board, it moves out of theory's self-contained world, into the real world of product and business development. Jonathan Nightingale, Mozilla's senior director of Firefox engineering, says he's often heard the criticism, "Why try to create a new platform, especially given the entrenched power of Android and iOS?"

"It's not a 'new platform,'" he says. "Because the Web isn't new. And the Web is already powering a lot of what people like today in Android and iOS apps."

Mozilla announced a companion project: Creating an online app store called Mozilla Marketplace. The Marketplace, which is drawing heavily from Mozilla's expertise with its online portal for offering Firefox plug-ins, is now open to developer submissions. Sometime later this year, it will open its virtual doors to the public.

Telefonica's drive is being spearheaded by Telefonica Digital, a unit charged explicitly with developing, exploiting, and commercializing new business opportunities in the so-called "digital economy." TD is working closely with cellular chipmaker Qualcomm to support the platform, and at MWC was demonstrating prototype phones based on a Qualcomm reference design. According Nightingale, TD has concluded that it can bring to market an "open Web device" for one-tenth the cost of an iPhone.

At the low-end that would mean a $20 handset that, with the rapid maturity of the HTML5 standards and the Boot to Gecko platform, behaves almost identically to high-end phones running Android, iOS, BlackBerry OS, or Windows Phone 7. That's the price of a low-end feature phone with the capabilities of a high-end smartphone.

In a Telefonica statement, Carlos Domingo, director of Product Development & Innovation at Telefónica Digital, said: "From our experience in Latin America we know that a huge part of the market is not being catered for by current smartphones. With new open Web devices we will be able to offer a smartphone experience at the right price point for these customers."

Nightingale demonstrated the user interface, with a familiar grid of application icons, on a Samsung Galaxy S2, stripped of its Android OS by Mozilla software engineers. Instead, it has a "thin Linux layer" which handles the device drivers and launches the Gecko rendering engine and its accompanying user interface (Telefonica had designed its own user interface for its MWC demonstrations). Nightingale brought up a dialer for a voice call, and played high-definition video.

Photo of a simple phone dialer shows B2G now has an API to make and take voice calls on the phone.

"Two years ago, HTML5 wouldn't have been mature enough for this," he says. "There was no webpage for dialing a phone. But we have one. And it's just HTML. If you show this [source code] to a Web developer, he'll say 'I see how that works.' "

Boot to Gecko supports geo-location, a tilt sensor, sending and receiving SMS messages, and a camera. As yet, there's no Web page for Near Field Communications, the short-range radios used in wireless transactions and other applications, but that, and many others are on Mozilla's prioritized API list.

Nightingale argues that for a growing number of PC and Mac users, the complex OS is simply the means to launch their Web browser of choice. That's because instead of using, for example a native word processor, they use Google Docs or some other online Web equivalent. The number of such Web substitutes is growing every day.

What that shows, he says, is that the OS in today's Web-defined world adds little in the way of value for the end user, or for the developer. And that's true as much for smartphones as for the desktop. "The Web gives you the opportunity to take these Web apps and services with you, whatever device you're using," Nightingale says.

The proprietary operating systems create silos that restrict users, and developers, he says. And partly in response, there is already a strong movement toward HTML5 app development. Boot to Gecko severs the link between the OS and the device, the users, and the developers, all of which can now fully leverage the Web.

Mozilla Marketplace will be similar to those offered by Google, Apple, RIM, and Microsoft. Mozilla will review app submissions, again drawing on its experience with its add-on community process, with security being a key part of the review.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.

Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww

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