This new smartphone OS lives in the cloud

The makers of the Puffin browser have applied their cloud expertise to a new operating system that they claim will outperform Android on low-end hardware, but its fee structure could be a deal-breaker for the next billion.

Google's Pixel line may vie with the best from Apple, Samsung, and others for the high-end market, but the company's broader phone ambitions are focused on people who could never afford that or any other premium device. Pursuing a phone for "the next billion" stretches back 20 years -- when Nokia promoted that target. But even though Google's business model suits the goal much better than Nokia's ever did, the task is far from trivial.

Google has a few bets on bringing a functional mobile platform to underserved users. Since 2014, it has offered Android One, a version of the ubiquitous operating system that restricted customization and emphasized timely security updates. One way to think of it is a first-party (Pixel-like) flavor of Android that can be offered on third-party phones. It was initially intended for low-end devices but has also been offered in higher-end products from Motorola and LG.

Two years ago, Google launched Android Go, which offers a different set of tradeoffs. It is even more expressly designed for lower-end devices, but manufacturers have more leeway in how they customize it. It is paired with lighter weight versions of popular Google apps such as Gmail and Maps, but these "Go" versions can be installed on any Android phone. Finally, to address the class of phones that fall even below Android Go's system requirements, Google has invested in KaiOS, a "smart feature phone" platform that is a spiritual heir to the Symbian phones of the 2000s. Google does not control that operating system, but it serves as the default provider for search, maps, and assistant services.

But with Google, Microsoft, and others moving to stream games in ultra high definition within a latency of a few milliseconds, why should phones need to have much resident software beyond a thin client that controls a virtual smartphone environment in the cloud? That embodies the proposition of Puffin OS. The new effort targets smartphones with a suggested retail price of under $100; it expands on the work the company had done with the Puffin browser, which has relied on cloud-based computing to achieve enhanced speed and fancy tricks such as rendering Flash games without Flash installed on the phone (when there was a demand for such functionality).

CloudMosa positions Puffin OS as filling a gap between KaiOS, which is optimized for keypad entry, and Android One/Go. It offers several benefits beyond better performance on low-end phones, including enhanced security and faster app installs (since no binaries need to be downloaded and installed). Puffin OS plans to get around the chicken-and-egg problem of jump-starting a new OS ecosystem by relying on web standards, essentially treating mobile web sites as "apps." It is far from the first to try that approach; Firefox OS (from which KaiOS was developed) set down that road.

But that leads to the biggest challenge of Puffin OS. CloudMosa claims that Puffin OS will run well with access to even 2.5G connections common in developing economies where it hopes to take root. However, only the basic functions of the phone work when it is offline. Web apps do not, and won't until offline functionality is provided via the Progressive Web Apps standard. In contrast, Google has worked to make more of its popular apps such as Maps and YouTube, function better offline. Even more significantly, CloudMesa must charge a fee to keep those servers running. That could likely be rolled into a carrier fee or subsidized by CloudMesa (the company is offering a year of service to Kickstarter backers), but becomes more challenging in the open market with an unlocked phone.

Taking the first step in the journey toward a billion users, CloudMosa's Kickstarter campaign offering a reference phone using Puffin OS attracted 472 backers raising a bit under $40,000. The company also intends to develop a way to install its operating system on existing Android phones.

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