Firefox OS: It’s All About the Apps

Today Geeksphone has started selling its first Firefox OS phones: the Keon and the Peak. As the online store opened its virtual doors, I was first in line. Not because I believe that the €119 Keon or €194 Peak will be the ultimate replacement for my €750 iPhone 5, but because I’m buying into a vision: the web has to become a first class citizen on mobile. It just has to happen.

Firefox OS is Mozilla’s entry into the mobile device market. It is an operating system built entirely on a web stack: all applications and widgets are built using HTML, CSS and JavaScript. You can view it as ChromeOS for phones, but it’s even more hard-core than that: everything, including the browser UI and even the battery widget at the top-right of the screen and the software keyboard is built using web technology.

I have not always been a big Firefox OS believer. When I first heard about Mozilla’s Boot2Gecko project (the code name for Firefox OS), I was put off by its nerdy angle. “Let’s staple our Gecko browser rendering engine [the engine powering Firefox] onto a Linux kernel and take over the world!” This, combined with rhetoric about openness and open source, does not a great consumer story make. If Mozilla loses sight of the end-user in its crusade for open source and the open web, it would be a missed opportunity. Of course, all of this assumes that people actually care about or notice operating systems. Do they?

Perhaps, not so much. As I observed my own smartphone usage over the past weeks, I concluded that I may have overvalued the operating system and the applications it comes with. I barely use any of Apple’s preinstalled applications anymore. I use Mailbox for email, Tweetbot for Twitter, Instacast for podcasts, Chrome for browsing. The time that iOS’ most important feature was its beautiful and consistent widget set and touch interactions has long gone. Today, many iOS applications use completely custom colors and widgets. iOS developers are inventing new touch interactions left and right. This has not led to a worse iOS experience for me — it has led to great innovation. Of course, there needs to be an operating systems, the infrastructure has to be there: you need system support for notifications, task management, a good software keyboard, solid power management, but beyond that, you’re good to go.

Assuming Firefox OS gets the fundamentals right — and after playing a bit with the emulator and skimming its documentation: the fundaments look good — “all” it needs are applications.

Creating an application ecosystem is the big challenge for any new mobile platform. Today, a smartphone is not interesting if you can’t play Angry Birds on it, if you can’t check Twitter and Facebook. The previous attempt at web technology-based platform, WebOS, used its web stack to lure developers in: “You already know HTML, CSS and JavaScript, so you can build applications for WebOS.” This was true, existing knowledge could be leveraged, but the result would be applications for WebOS specifically. Investing in platform-specific applications is only worth it if enough people have these phones in their pockets.

This is exactly where Firefox OS is different: Mozilla is not asking you to develop Firefox OS applications, it is asking you to build mobile web applications. Applications that don’t only run great on Firefox OS, but also on Android, iOS or any other platform with a decent web browser. You can enhance these applications using APIs currently unique to Firefox OS, for instance to access the camera, contacts and the photo library, but you don’t have to. As Mozilla is working to standardize these APIs, they should appear on other platforms as well. Some already have.

“But I’ve tried mobile web applications on my mobile phone, and they suck compared to native apps!”

You may think so, but the general population apparently doesn’t agree telling from Facebook’s mobile usage. Here’s a slide from a talk from Facebook’s James Pearce (QCon SF, 2012):

Indeed, more people use Facebook’s mobile website than the iOS and Android applications combined. Even if you consider the experience worse than native, apparently it’s good enough for most.

But does a web experience have to be worse? A week or two ago I discovered forecast.io (be sure to open that URL in your iPhone browser). Forecast.io is the first mobile web app that I’ve seen whose experience is indistinguishable from a native application. On my iPhone 5 everything works super fast, and I’ve switched to using it for all my weather forecasting needs — which are extensive — replacing the iPhone’s native weather app.

There is only one issue with forecast.io: whenever I task-switch to it, it reloads the application. While Apple added application pause and resuming when switching between applications years ago, this is not supported for web applications added to the home screen. When will Apple add this functionality? That’s unclear, but my guess is it’s not a feature high on Apple’s priority list. The reality is that on today’s mobile platforms, web applications are second-class citizen, and there’s little incentive to improve this while Apple and Google benefit from their AppStores and Play Stores.

This is why we need a mobile platform that takes the web seriously. One that makes web applications first-class. Hello, Firefox OS.

However, let’s not forget building a new platform is hard. My prediction is that the first Firefox OS phones that ship will not compare favorably to iPhones and high-end Androids. This is forgivable because it’s a 1.0, and because you can buy about six Firefox OS devices for the price of a single iPhone — hello part of the world that doesn’t swim in money. Putting out a phone at feature parity from day one is pretty tough. There’s a lot to catch up on. It will need time to get there.

The bigger picture is that the groundwork done by the Firefox OS team, standardizing new APIs to make mobile web applications more capable than they are today, is making significant strides in moving the mobile web forward, as Firefox did for the “desktop web” before it. Therefore, even if Firefox OS doesn’t “win,” but is ultimately beat by Google’s web-based phone (ChromePhone?), or Microsoft’s version (Web4Win?), the mobile web still wins.

So, I’m voting with my wallet and buying a Firefox OS phone. Also: I like new gadgets to play with.