With the evolution of HTML5 standards gathering pace, and developers increasingly looking to produce apps for multiple platforms, Mozilla's plans to deliver an HTML5-based operating system for smartphones could have a major impact.
Given the siloed nature of existing mobile operating systems, which tie users to a specific platform with varying levels of security, Mozilla's standards-based OS with an open-application ecosystem could begin to look like an attractive prospect to consumers as well as developers.
ZDNet UK talked to Jay Sullivan, vice president of products at Mozilla, to see what difficulties the project has had to overcome, what's in store, and why Boot 2 Gecko (B2G) needs to exist at all.
Q: What's the thinking behind Boot to Gecko? Why do you think it is necessary, and why now?
HTML5 has evolved so much over the past few years that technically what we set out to do was direct the aggregation of HTML5 to the hardware. So it's a Linux kernel and device drivers, but there are no other layers of software.
If you think of the web browser running in iOS, it's sitting on Carbon and Cocoa and all these layers, and then the OS. All that stuff is not there [in B2G].
So it removes that extra layer of software, all that middleware?
Exactly. The equivalent on Android would be that there is no Dalvik. There is no Java machine. It's just the Gecko rendering engine. It's a Linux kernel and uses the same device drivers that Android uses. So if you're an OEM, you can get this thing set up in a few days, because it's using all the same drivers and stuff.
Was removing that layer of middleware the reason for building a standalone mobile platform rather than, say, something like Canonical's Ubuntu for Android, which acts as a layer on top?
Well, you can't initiate a phone call, send an SMS, do all that stuff. So we have a web API project to get that stuff up and running, and we're working to standardise all that. We're bringing all of that to the W3C [World Wide Web Consortium] as standards.
Are your hopes for the platform limited by what is already standardised, or do you have to create standards of the future as you go?
Some of the [other] initiatives have been, "Hey, let's write the documents first", and then wait around for the standards. We try to lead with code. We can't wait, we need telephony. We need this stuff.
That said, we are working in the open. There's nothing secret and we work with others — like Telefonica and Deutsche Telekom — and browser vendors about adding things like camera and telephony support, so we have the best chance of standardising as soon possible.
That's the technical bottom-up view, but what about the ecosystem?
Mozilla's mission is to support user choice and developer freedom on the web, and we did that successfully on desktops and now we have a lot of choice and competition — careful what you wish for — which has been really good for users. We brought the web platform a long way in the past five or six years.
Now the big risks to our mission, in a mobile environment, are users getting locked into silos. You don't really own your apps — your Android account owns your apps. You can't go home and pull out your iPad or go to your PC and access them.
We want users to have complete ownership and control of apps and their profile data.
We want users to have complete ownership and control of apps and their profile data and everything else, which fits with other initiatives like BrowserID and Persona. We wanted developers to be able to hack freely and distribute their apps to whoever they want whenever they want, which leads to the app and Mozilla Marketplace side of it.
The apps on B2G are normal HTML5 apps or sites that have been wrapped up with a little metadata information that says, "Hey, I'm an app. Here's my icon. Here's my name." So what we're trying to do is make it so that users have choice and that developers can just freely develop whatever they want without worrying about stores and gatekeepers.
We're going to have a market because people want ratings and discoverability. But what's unique about our system is that anyone can have a market for web apps, and also, you can self-publish them and the browser can help [the user] discover those web apps.
So you might be on a site and it says, "Hey, we have an app", or the browser detects there is a web app. You hit a button and you've got it and then it would show up on your phone and tablets as well. We're doing a store, but something that's much more open and distributive.
Given the parallels in some ways between B2G and Android, is there any potential for similar legal issues that could arise if operators or manufacturers get behind this and it becomes a big target?
From an IP point of view, it's all built on open-source, royalty-free stuff so far. We have the Linux kernel that has been open and free of IP taint — as far as data stream goes and device drivers — and on top of that the rest of the OS is the Gecko engine, which has been open source for a long time.
I think for someone to go after this, they'd have to go after the whole web, because that's what it is. We don't use any Android components that have been subject to litigation. I'm not a lawyer, I should say, but it seems to me like the situation there is about as good as it can be.
Is it a project that has been driven internally, or did it arise in response to customers and handset manufacturers?
It was pretty internally-driven. The biggest implementation of...