FirefoxOS: Beyond Idealism

My former colleague Sergi Mansilla, now working on FirefoxOS, wrote a nice article about the promise of FirefoxOS:

But Firefox OS will not be directly battling against other mobile platforms. Its main objective is to change the way the world develops mobile apps, and even in the unlikely event that Firefox OS itself disappears in the process, if web-apps become mainstream, it will have succeeded.

The fact that any website is a potential app can’t be underestimated. By tapping into extremely popular and flexible technologies such as HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript, Firefox OS instantly promoted millions of web and JavaScript developers into app developers. All they have to do is download a free simulator addon (and not even that is strictly necessary if your app is not going to use phone APIs). Developers already know the browser environment and the tools, and there’s no need to learn any new language or framework.

I appreciate that the vision of FirefoxOS is that mobile apps — like desktop apps before it — need to move to the web. I also appreciate the idea that even if FirefoxOS itself fails, but web apps will have become the go-to platform for mobile in the process — that this will be considered a success as well. That’s very admirable.

I’d like to talk about is the case where FirefoxOS does become a success.

What worries me is that FirefoxOS’ goals seem to be primarily technical and idealistc. The focus is on building out the web to become a great mobile platform. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good idea — the mobile web has to win some day. But if the user experience of FirefoxOS sucks, I’m a lot less enthusiastic.

Mozilla, the main driver of FirefoxOS, has a strong engineering company culture, they hire people that excel at engineering. Another company with a similar company culture is Google. They put out a mobile operating system called Android. And guess what, the operating system is much like the company: technically impressive, but its usability has been sub-par from the beginning compared to alternatives like iOS. This is improving now, but it’s a slow process. Recently I had to explain my sister in law how to use her new Android phone (Android 4.0), and it became painfully clear that many things were not intuitive at all. They’re learnable, but not intuitive.

And guess who are supposed to be the ones using these FirefoxOS devices at the end of the day. Hint: it’s not web developers and freedom fighters.

You may have the best technical vision and idealism in the world, but technical idealism does not a good mobile operating system make.

If FirefoxOS from a UX perspective is going to be yet another Android 1.0, that would be bad. I’d like to see a web-based mobile operating system succeed that is both technically impressive and easy to use.

You can give end-users your most idealistic two-hour speech about how iOS and Android are locking them in and taking away freedom — they’ll just give you a blank stare. As far as they are concerned, their phones could only be used to make phone calls before, now they can also upload funny cat pictures and stalk people on facebook. All this “open” and “freedom” rhetoric may work on a subset of geeks, it does not speak to anybody else.

I sincerely hope Mozilla and its partners can put something together that has a good user experience. If not, it may just be one of those meh platforms that become “popular” through sheer carrier pushing, instead of users specifically asking for a FirefoxOS phone. And that’s not how I’d want the web to win.