'Firefox OS is because we want the web to win, not because we want Firefox OS to win'

Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, on why slow and steady will win the race for Firefox OS against Android and iPhone.
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

The World Wide Web was invented as a way to share documents, but in the 20-plus years since its creation it has evolved into a portal for accessing music, video, applications, and games.

Today, most software on a home PC takes a back seat to the web browser, which acts as a gateway to email, social networks, and video-on-demand.

On phones and tablets, however, the browser plays second fiddle to software that runs natively on the device — offering a poor alternative to the millions of apps on Android and iOS platforms.

Mark Surman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation

The not-for-profit foundation Mozilla hopes to bring the web to the fore on mobile with Firefox OS, its open source operating system designed to run apps built from web technologies.

Why do web technologies matter? Because they can reach vast numbers of people. Practically anyone with access to a web browser can run a piece of software built using web technologies such as HTML, CSS and JavaScript, whether that browser is running on an Android handset or an old tower PC.

That huge reach is attractive — both to developers, who can serve large numbers of people without rewriting software for multiple computing platforms, and to consumers, who can access and share their favourite apps on whatever device they have to hand.

Yet, more than two decades on, the web has distinct drawbacks as a software platform. Apps running in the browser perform worse than those running natively and it remains tricky to develop and test web apps. On mobile devices web apps have, until recently, lacked software interfaces for accessing key parts of phone hardware, such as the ringer and accelerometer.

Putting the web first

Mozilla has chosen to start small in its mission to put the web at the heart of mobile, targeting Firefox OS at first-time smartphone users looking for a budget handset — sub-$100 — in countries in South America and Europe.

"Most of the places where we have launched Firefox OS this year have been in Latin America and Eastern Europe. There's a very specific strategy, which is introducing an affordable, smartphone that brings the web and brings mobile to people who don't have it already," Mark Surman, the executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, told ZDNet.

"It's not so much it's not good enough yet for other markets, as we're putting it in places where it's likely to succeed because there are more new buyers, right now."

Reviewers in the UK and US have criticised Firefox OS handsets, such as the ZTE Open, for a lack of responsiveness, slow speed and the very basic functionality of apps included in early version of the OS — for example, a lack of autocorrect.

However, complaints about the OS are being addressed with updates to the system every quarter. Surman said that Firefox OS is only at the beginning of its journey and that feedback from the OS' first outings will be used to refine future versions before it launches in markets where smartphone competition is more fierce.

"Of course there's more work to do. If I think about my G1 Android phone and I think about an Android phone I can buy today, it's evolved dramatically," Surman said.

"It's the normal product cycle with anything, you put a first version out there, see how the market responds, you evolve it and make it better.

"As was the case for Android you get multiple vendors involved in using it and they improve it in different ways and you roll those improvements back into the core product."

Showcasing mobile apps

In some ways Firefox OS will be a showcase, to demonstrate the mobile apps built using web technologies can rival or better native apps, and to get developers using the open web APIs Mozilla has developed for accessing core mobile phone and tablet hardware and for knitting the OS and applications together, such as push messaging functionality.

"We're not doing Firefox OS because we want Firefox OS to win, we're doing Firefox OS because we want the web to win," Surman said.

"Mozilla has been a leader in is building web APIs that give you the kind of things that you used to only be able to do on a native platform. Now there are APIs for the accelerometer, for the dialler, all these kind of things. These are now web standards and you start to see them implemented in other browsers, Chrome on Android is starting to implement these web APIs.

"We've moved the ball 80 percent of the way there. [But] this is still a process of transition — it's going to take years to fully work out all of these things to the point where everyone is willing to move over to all the web APIs."

Mozilla has been pushing the capabilities of the web since the release of Firefox 1.0 in 2004 shook up the desktop web browser market, at that point stagnating under Internet Explorer's stewardship.

Part of Surman's confidence that web technologies will evolve to meet the needs of mobile stems from improvements to web standards over the past 10 years, whether that is technologies such as AJAX making websites and apps feel far more responsive or HTML5 adding support for video playback without web plug-ins, such as Adobe Flash.

"Go back to the late 1990s or even the early 2000s, you couldn't put a video inside of a web page or do a lot of interactive animation. Pre-AJAX you couldn't even most of what Gmail can do today.

"Back then the capabilities didn't exist on the web to do what Flash did. Now Adobe has recognised that HTML5 has pretty much won the web and can do all it needs to do. We're along the same sort of trajectory with mobile."

Ultimately, Surman believes that it is the openness of the web — the ability for almost anyone to set up a web site or app and for others to access it — that will win out over the walled gardens of Android's and iOS app stores.

"The web has been successful because it's open, because it's a shared resource, anybody can throw up a URL and if they've got an idea for a business or a piece of art, they can reach the whole world," he said.

"Mobile doesn't work like that. In mobile if I want to get an app out there I go through the Play or the Apple Store, and there's a gatekeeper. There's a single point of approval.

"We've gone from what is effectively the most open and democratic distribution system in the history of humanity, the URL, to a place where there are two stores.

"That's a pretty big change. If you look at the core open distribution system of the web it's been great for the economy and created billions or trillions of dollars of new wealth.

"We think that that open shared resource that is the web is what people will want in mobile eventually, but also what is needed for mobile to continue to generate the wealth and innovation we've seen in the web for its first 20 years."

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