Mozilla aims to break iOS-Android mobile axis

Browser maker is approaching the mobile challenge head on by developing its Firefox OS, improving Web app development tools, and turning the Internet into a universal appstore.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

SINGAPORE--Not content with how certain aspect of the mobile industry is developing, and intent on remaining relevant as more people turn to mobile devices to access the Web, Mozilla is taking a multi-prong approach to addressing these issues.

Key to the browser maker's mobile focus would be its Firefox operating system (OS)--scheduled to launch in Brazil in 2013--as well as its ongoing efforts to improve the development of Web apps, discoverability, and collating of user reviews, explained Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich in an interview Monday. The end goal would be to transform the Internet into a "universal appstore" with the review and payments systems in place to help developers improve distribution and profits.

Asked if Mozilla, which developed the Firefox browser in 2004, is late to the mobile game, Eich revealed it had been contemplating plans to enter the market for a long time. Its recent push into mobile, though, was "just right" in terms of timing because there is now a lot more standardization, or "flatlining", of innovation in the mobile hardware space. He added system-on-chip (SoC) technology also is pushing into mainstream.

These allow developers such as Mozilla to settle on a consistent development framework, and minimize the amount of fragmentation it would have encountered if it entered the scene earlier, he explained.

Citing the example of another browser maker, Opera Software, Eich said the Norwegian company is now facing porting and fragmentation issues given that it made its mobile services available across a wide spectrum of devices and operating systems.

Furthermore, Mozilla's "Boot to Gecko" project which overlooks the development of Firefox OS is based entirely on HTML 5 and open Web standards, and the platform will support apps developed using these technologies. As such, developers can avoid screen fragmentation issues--as experienced on Android OS--and being locked into a native app development environment such as iOS, which hinders the ability to scale and reach out to a wider demographic of users, he added.

Giving app discoverability a boost
Eich also hoped that by giving mobile developers and content producers a platform to showcase their HTML 5-based apps, it would broaden the concept of a native appstore to one where the Internet is the universal appstore--thus improving discoverability and distribution.

Just as Google disrupted the search industry by curating and weighting how different Web pages link to each other, Mozilla is hoping opening up apps to Web standards can boost app search. This is because software can be written to search the source code and metadata of a Web app, and broaden the parameters for such search requests, he explained.

Currently, native apps are considered "black boxes" because no one can look inside the app and find out more of its details beyond its name and a little metadata, he added.

Eich said efforts to improve discoverability should also include enabling user reviews of apps from various sources. This can be done by using cloud computing to pull different sources such as native appstores, third-party appstores, and even the Web sites of content producers and users' blogs.

"If we just include reviews from one appstore, there will be biased reviews and the 'cult of the fans' effect might set in to skew results," he noted.

Grassroots approach in Asia
As for Mozilla's plans for Asia in the near term, Eich said it will continue to adopt its grassroots approach and rely on "local leaders" in the region given the diversity of its markets.

Japan, India and Indonesia have been some of the stronger Mozilla communities with "heavy influence" on the respective market's media channels. The Philippines is quickly assuming similar status, with the local community hosting some 90 events in 2011 alone, he added.

One example of how Mozilla is partnering local communities to effect change is in South Korea, in which it is one of the many advocates lobbying the local government to move away from using Microsoft's ActiveX plug-in for all online transactions, Eich noted. Through efforts within the community, Mozilla's Network Security Services (NSS) crypto model is now the de facto framework for mobile transactions in the country.

The Korean government in 1999 stipulated the use of ActiveX framework to verify shoppers' IDs and persevered with the technology even though it had become outdated. With the prevalence of mobile devices as another Internet access point, and more South Koreans using these devices to conduct online transactions, the Financial Services Commission was forced to scrap the ruling in July this year as it was hindering smartphone users from buying things online.

As for bringing Firefox OS to Asia, given that the OS is meant to help introduce more sub-US$100 smartphones to emerging markets, Eich said its global partner ecosystem is integral in promoting the system and the company will focus not only on Latin America or Europe.

In China and Taiwan, for example, Mozilla is talking with chipmakers such as MediaTek and Spreadtrum Communications to explore the possibilities of bringing Firefox OS-based phones to market, he revealed. It showcased its low-cost SC8810 smartphone, developed in collaboration with Spreadtrum, during the Mobile Asia Congress 2012 in July.

Eich could not disclose when Mozilla and its partners will bring Firefox OS devices into Asia, though.

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