Has Firefox OS A Good Chance Against The Big Smartphone Platforms from Google and Apple?

More recently news emerged about handset manufacturer ZTE showing off a mobile phone with a new operating system called Firefox OS. Fire is all over the place now. News about a Firefox OS app store leaked onto the Web and Mozilla has brought Firefox OS now to the public on YouTube [1]. There is buzz around what Mozilla and a few network operators are in the process of creating. A new web-based operating system for smartphones, completely open for innovation and much less proprietary then what we got used to, namely Android phones and iPhones. Is the end near for Apple’s ever-rising stock price? Let’s have a closer look.

B2G – Three letters and a big project behind it. In an announcement called Booting the Web [2], Mozilla announced a project “Boot to Gecko” [3] already some time ago. The idea is not to give the Web the boots but to use Web technologies to replace (or displace) proprietary vendor software stacks for application development both on mobile and on desktop (think Apple iOS, Google Android, Microsoft WP7) with code created in the open [4]. Several attempts have been made to build mobile apps using HTML 5 with the goal to make them as slick as native applications built for iPhone or Android phones. Still, experts admit that HTML 5 apps aren’t “equals of native apps” yet, to the annoyance of web evangelists. The original Boot to Gecko project was renamed or complemented with the brand Firefox OS in July 2012 [5], [6]. The Firefox operating system stands for the goal to create a completely web-based operating system (i.e. going beyond just a browser). Something indeed pretty newish.

Firefox OS: The official terminology now is a bit mixed: “Firefox OS is a new mobile operating system developed by Mozilla’s Boot to Gecko (B2G) project” is one interpretation [7]. Another angle is: “Firefox OS, [is] also referred to by its codename “Boot to Gecko” or B2G” as in [8]. As said, Firefox OS is about creating an open mobile ecosystem based on HTML 5. The project aims at filling a couple of gaps, which hinder today’s web apps which are e.g. built with HTML 5 to create an equally great user experience as apps on iPhone 5 and Android phones. Work therefore focuses on

  • New web APIs: They shall be exposed to web applications and provide access to device capabilities like the camera (e.g. on smartphone or laptop) and to operating system (OS) level functions. Specifically the latter has the potential to make Firefox OS bite Android phones and iPhones.
  • Security mechanism: To expose device and OS features in a secure/safe way. This is typically a non-trivial task and turned out to cause much headache e.g. in W3C.
  • New apps: To demonstrate and prove out the new open web operating system.

Mozilla’s strategy: Mozilla is doing the work in the open as they say and are releasing source code as soon as code is produced [4]. They are working with members of the mobile industry to get it right from the start. The team needs to fix many bugs in current technologies and additionally make enhancement. Those are planned to be brought back to the relevant standards organisations like W3C. A laudable approach.

Network operators signal appetite: Several network operators already back the project. Amongst them are Telefónica, Deutsche Telekom, Telecom Italia, Telenor, Etisalat, Smart, and Sprint [4]. Any moment, others may jump on board as well.

Telefónica Digital showcased a new phone prototype using B2G (now Firefox OS) at the Mobile World Congress in Feb 2012. Deutsche Telekom is said to contribute NFC-enabling software to Firefox OS [4].

Supporting network operators mention a series of motivations for this project:

  1. Providing a better smartphone experience to a larger proportion of the population at lower costs.
    I believe that this is a good intent but the project may not be there yet as far as the user experience is concerned. Still today, it’s difficult to beat a user experience of an iPhone or a good Android device which is optimized using some native programming mechanisms. Providing a good experience to a larger proportion of the population will most likely refer to the following point below: addressing new markets in some heavily populated regions of the world. Providing the phones ultimately at lower costs: This may well be true for such phones if compared to the high-end iPhones. However, it might be a challenge to shake off competition from Android phones targeted for the lower-tier markets.
  2. Driving the adoption of smartphones in emerging markets.
    There is indeed much room for growth in emerging markets, given that in many places of the world delivery of basic mobile communication services (voice calls) and network coverage have been the primary goal, less so sophisticated smartphone services. A blog entry on Mozilla also reveals that emerging markets are indeed in the focus: A User Experience Research team arranged a trip to Sao Paulo and Recife in Brazil to figure out “how the middle class thinks about and uses phones so we could design the best user experience for Firefox OS”. Let’s call this a very pragmatic and hands-on approach.
  3. Creation of a fully open, mobile ecosystem.
    The smartphone industry is currently characterized by a duopoly in the area of smartphone operating systems that enjoy a dominating market share: Android from Google and iOS from Apple. Both developer ecosystems attached to Android/Google and Apple can be said to lack openness. Thus, the prospect of a more open mobile phone/OS/applications ecosystem appears attractive particularly to network operators. Various attempts have been started in the past including the LiMo Foundation and the still progressing Tizen Association. Mozilla’s Firefox OS effort is a new, refreshing attempt in a similar direction with a rather Web focused organization in the driver’s seat, cleverly tapping into the mobile experience of network operators.
  4. Services across a complete portfolio of devices (e.g. phones, tablets,…).
    This motivation is understandable as it leads to a greater proliferation and availability of apps and services for consumers on a multitude of devices, which in turn drives the need for data bandwidth. Again, this drives revenues for operators. Such cross-platform applications could also be produced at lower costs, when one and the same technology (speak HTML 5) is supported in a compatible way across device platforms.

What about the interest from device manufacturers? TCL Communication Technology and ZTE [9] are known to support the Firefox OS effort. Equally Alcatel has shown interest. Qualcomm was amongst the first to co-operate with Mozilla on prototyping a Firefox OS device. News about the big players like Samsung or Nokia is pending. Samsung has been a key player with Intel in the Tizen initiative, whereas Nokia – well, they had understandably other priorities and ties.

When will first Firefox OS devices appear on the market? Go-to-market is first expected to happen in Brazil in 2013 through Telefónica. A pity that’s not yet 2013.

Market entry strategies: As Mozilla say on their Jul 2, 2012 blog, the platform is optimized for entry-level smartphones, which includes removal of unnecessary middleware layers. This statement points towards positioning first Firefox OS mobile devices at the lower end of smartphones with user experience beating the one of today’s lower end phones. This might turn out to meet some market demand particularly in developing countries. Such a market entry strategy would also avoid head-on competition with lower tier Android phones.

The CEO of Mozilla, Gary Kovacs, mentions specifically “billions of users” coming “online for the first time in the coming years”, a hint towards the usefulness of Firefox OS first of all for emerging markets.

Technology: Firefox OS will provide application programming interfaces for HTML 5 web pages and web applications. The APIs will be accessible through Javascript. In this regard, Firefox OS is betting on more success of the famous triplet HTML 5, CSS3 and Javascript. More on its architecture can be found in [10].

The open source code of the project includes a Linux kernel and a hardware abstraction layer called Gonk. This slimmed-down operating system core layer, as developed in the open, is able to expose interfaces to the application runtime environment sitting on top of Gonk called Gecko. The system boots (instead of into say Windows) into this application runtime software. It’s the machinery that supports running and displaying an HTML application (i.e. it understands HTML 5, Cascading Style Sheets for formatting and defining style as well as Javascript code for dynamic user interfaces and execution of an app’s intelligence directly on the phone). Gecko is a type of software comparable to WebKit (used in Apple’s Safari browser and in the Google Chrome browser).

What people in the end see of the Firefox OS is its user interface components, collectively called Gaia [11]. The user interface is created as a web application itself. An important part of Gaia is e.g. the home screen (e.g. the smartphone’s idle screen).  Example apps include browser, calendar, phone dialer, clock, settings etc.

Roadmap: Mozilla provide a roadmap schedule [12] which is publicly accessible however lacks a degree of firmness and thoroughness. A B2G Milestone 5 plan is also available for specialists, though there might be somewhere a newer one [13].

Unique opportunities: Firefox OS emerges at an interesting point in time. Network operators around the globe struggle with what is called network-unfriendly applications. Various applications written e.g. for Android phones and iPhone have been proven to create signalling overload in radio and core networks of mobile operators. There are cases where whole mobile network outages have been attributed to badly behaving smartphone apps. Network operators have called on their industry association, the GSMA, to assist in providing remedies and collectively influencing/lobbying the big players Google and Apple, who traditionally act rather independently of the mobile network operators. Those efforts have produced mixed results so far.

As a consequence, network operators experiment with new technology like proxy servers and phone middleware in an attempt to keep in check those network-unfriendly apps. Several technology vendors have their solutions currently in trial stage. Overall, this will help alleviate the problems, but it might become a patchwork of plasters stuck on where the pain points are biggest. It consumes Opex and Capex in a fragmented, uncoordinated way.

Firefox OS offers a great new opportunity to build in technologies that take into account the requirements of network operators related to network friendly applications. Firefox OS could be designed to easily integrate the aforementioned proxy technologies and equally policy execution points. It would be a surprise if this opportunity were missed, given that Firefox OS is developed very much in an open way with significant participation from network operators.

A unique strength of Firefox OS could lie in the differentiation potential it offers for network operators. Though mobile operators are used to work together on common industry projects under the umbrella of the GSMA, cooperation doesn’t guarantee joint success, specifically when the desire to differentiate and compete with their peers pulls the parties apart even whey working on the same project.

The possibility to differentiate is so to say built into the Firefox OS concept. Once a smartphone idle screen or the voice call dialler is realised not as a block of native code, but as an HTML 5 application, one may imagine that such HTML 5 applications are also hosted on different corporate web servers and are downloadable to a smartphone even in the field. So technically, why would a Firefox OS powered smartphone from Telefonica need to have the same look and feel as one from Deutsche Telekom? As long as the on-device programming interfaces and security mechanisms are clearly defined, such companies could benefit from the differentiation capability of the overall Firefox OS-based smartphone idea.

Challenges: The list of potential and real challenges is long. The use of Firefox OS in the mobile industry is in its very early stages. Here my view on some of the issues.

OEMs. How attractive will Firefox-OS based smartphones be to the big OEMs like Samsung or Nokia? How much would these players have to give? What would they lose control over? Would Firefox OS one day indeed allow smartphone idle screens and core phone functions to be largely defined and controlled by mobile operators? Why would that be in the interest of those big OEMs? Would the business models need to be adapted? The future will tell us, when we see how fast those players get on board or not.

Costs measured as bill of materials (BOM): If Firefox OS-powered devices shall enter the smartphone market at the low end e.g. in emerging markets, they will meet competition from other smartphone platforms which have managed to drive down costs by 2013.

Where are we with costs? In 2010, the BOM for a good smartphone like the HTC Droid was around $163. Chinese manufacturers of Android phones were then forecast to achieve a BOM of below $100. In 2011 the component costs for high-end smartphones dropped below $150 and $100 were again forecast to be achievable within 12 months. Does the trend continue and costs drop to $50 and below?

Well, that would be too simple to conclude. Smartphone manufacturers are under expectation to do more, surprise the consumer markets with ever fancier features, with near-field communication interfaces, built-in electronic wallets, even higher quality displays, more memory space, better maps, faster radio access etc. Though the BOM for the iPhone 4S was said to be down to at least $132 in the meantime, the iPhone 5 is said to come with components worth $167. The Nokia Lumia 900 was said to feature a components cost tag of $209. Mind, those figures depend strongly e.g. on the assumptions made on phone features like memory space. The HTC Thunderbolt reaches even $262 which appears to be due to its 4G LTE feature. A Qualcomm 4G LTE set of chips with a bit of memory amounts to nearly $40.

A quick calculation would be 3G/4G radio $15 – $35, display and touchscreen $21 – $25, battery $3, camera $6 – $10, processor $14 – $28, memory $9 only to name a few components. A lower bound then would be at least say $68. To get a Firefox-OS driven smartphone proposition to take off in Latin America or India for a population which couldn’t afford high-end smartphones before, how much could the sales price be above $68? A web-based phone with lots of Javascript in it still needs fast execution and a fast processor. Equally, those HTML 5 consumer apps will have appetite to communicate with the network, to send heartbeats and to poll content servers which tends to increase the amount of radio resource signalling and to eat away from battery life.  So, good components seem useful. Also, would it be fun to consume HTML 5 apps CSS-styled and Javascript-face-lifted on a crappy touch display? Probably not. That indicates that Firefox OS-devices may not escape with mega-cheap phone components. Which puts a lower limit on the bill of materials. Which in turn might bring it back into the competition/collision space with Android and other smartphone platforms. Therefore, Rob Hawkes is right on the Mozilla hacks blog [14]:

“Another of the challenges is making sure that the phone runs as fast as possible, creating the best experience possible. This also relates to questions raised within the developer community around the performance capabilities of JavaScript, particularly when it is used to do things that are perceived to be complex, or when it is compared against ‘native’ technologies. This is a challenge that we are taking very seriously and one which we feel we can overcome. “

Developer communities: Creating a big and sustainable developer community is a major effort. Big money has been poured into developer communities, from Microsoft, to Google to Nokia just to mention a few. A buzzing developer community is a major boost to any device platform. However, developers are a demanding species: They are keen to be associated with a “cool platform” (see iPhone or Android) and they love to get their stuff (apps) sold in top class app stores. Beyond that, they like productivity enhancing tools. Where is Mozilla in this regard with creating a developer community around Firefox OS specifically for mobile? Where is the big money coming from? Are the pockets of the Firefox OS proponents as deep as those of Microsoft or even the cash-rich Apple?

An apps market place: Rob Hawkes also mentions the difficulty of managing an open, distributed market place. Mind: a market place as Google Play or the Apple App Store is not that “open”. Certainly Apple’s App Store is tightly controlled and not specifically distributed, which may have its own benefits when it comes to quality control. The Firefox OS market place at least seems to be still highly confidential and only accessible for true Mozillians [15], though some pictures have already leaked [16].

Overall, challenges are there to excite people and to be overcome. The Mozilla Firefox OS effort is as encouraging as it looks daunting. A great idea to enable largely web technology-powered devices. Maybe the time is right and technology (soon) mature enough to let come to fruition what Patryk Adamczyk talked about at the MozCamp Warsaw with a bunch of much interesting pictures: Design principles behind Firefox OS user experience [17].


[1]       http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MzuGWFIfio&feature=player_embedded: Firefox OS demo on YouTube.

[2]       https://wiki.mozilla.org/Booting_to_the_Web: Mozilla announcement.

[3]       https://wiki.mozilla.org/B2G: Mozilla Boot to Gecko home page with links to many subtopics.

[4]       https://github.com/andreasgal/B2G: Source code repository for B2G.

[5]       http://blog.mozilla.org/: Mozilla blog.

[6]       http://blog.mozilla.org/blog/2012/07/02/firefox-mobile-os/: Mozilla about Firefox OS, Jul 2, 2012.

[7]       https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Mozilla/Firefox_OS: Firefox OS home page on Mozilla Developer Network.

[8]       https://developer.mozilla.org/en-US/docs/Mozilla/Boot_to_Gecko/Introduction: Introduction to Firefox OS.

[9]       http://www.tomshardware.com/news/ZTE-Firefox-OS-Smartphone,18135.html: talk about ZTE.

[10]     https://wiki.mozilla.org/B2G/Architecture: The architecture of Firefox OS.

[11]     https://wiki.mozilla.org/Gaia: Gaia, the Firefox user interface components.

[12]     https://wiki.mozilla.org/B2G/Schedule_Roadmap

[13]     https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0AiBigu584YY7dGlNSlY0QzhJb3M5anRBa1gxalV0Y3c#gid=0   Planning spreadsheet.

[14]     https://hacks.mozilla.org/2012/10/creating-the-future-of-mobile-with-firefox-os/: Rob Hawkes on the Mozilla blog.

[15]     https://marketplace.mozilla.org/login: The Marketplace currently only available to invited Mozillians.

[16]     http://www.engadget.com/2012/09/03/firefox-os-marketplace-leaks-in-current-form/: Firefox OS Marketplace.

[17]     http://blog.mozilla.org/ux/2012/09/mozcamp-warsaw-design-principles-behind-firefox-os-ux/: Design principles behind Firefox OS user experience. Patryk Adamczyk from the MozCamp Warsaw. Various pictures.


2 thoughts on “Has Firefox OS A Good Chance Against The Big Smartphone Platforms from Google and Apple?

  1. Good article gk – worth noting any lessons learnt from Chrome OS and Open webOS (pre-dating Firefox OS as a Web OS); and also the cost of development: on one hand, there is no publication fee as seen on iOS, and there is no lock-in regarding revenue partnerships (can choose PayPal, Amazon Payments, Premium SMS etc.) – however there is an increased cost of testing across n x HTML 5 devices vs. a handful of iOS devices, which increases time to market. Would also be interesting to see the TCP/IP stack and how it manages the need for synching apps without significant battery drain.

  2. Very comprehensive article, gk!

    as Kevin Smith mentions, one thing which might be worth mentioning is that Firefox OS is doing for mobile what Google less successfully tried to do for desktop earlier with ChromeOS: Even though they also created a bunch of APIs to do things in the browser that you weren’t able to do before, it was much less “webby” in that you actually had a Linux Geento underneath (no windowing system but I was access the command line as even as root was possible). But there were still a number of things you just couldn’t do and it was (and still is) oh so buggy. I think this is the key difference that will make FF OS successful: they are going full web, but at the same time filling the gaps to not leave the proposition any short of existing OSes. And quality matters when you have established competitors.

    In that sense, could it be considered that APIs are also one of the challenges (i.e. the need to bridge the gap in terms of capabilities with native mobile OSes). How will they manage and how quickly?

    I have faith in the performance improvements that can be achieved for Javascript: no other programming language has had such a trend; every year JS is in the order of magnitudes faster thanks to the work that the browser makers put on this. The problem is hard as you mention but the benchmark is constantly being pushed upwards.

    Great blog, btw. Keep the posts coming!

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