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29 July 2011, 16:46
Mozilla's next Firefox moment?

Mozilla's next Firefox moment?

by Glyn Moody

Last year, there was a lot of handwringing about Firefox's continuing loss of market share. This was only by relatively small amounts, but people wondered whether Firefox had peaked and was in trouble.

As I pointed out at the time, the reason Firefox's share was more or less static was that Google Chrome was experiencing a rapid uptake, and Microsoft's latest incarnation of Internet Explorer had improved in terms of open standards compliance, and so more people were using it.

The fact that there were now three good browsers supporting those standards, two of which were open source, meant that Mozilla had effectively achieved its goal of promoting a vibrant, open web – something to be celebrated, rather than fretted about.

However, that did raise the question of where Mozilla went from there. In a piece I wrote in March of this year, I noted its new interest in web apps, and how this could play a valuable role in keeping the web open in a world of walled gardens and proprietary apps. Things then went a little quiet on this front until earlier this week, as reported on The H, the following was posted to the Usenet group by Andreas Gal:

Mozilla believes that the web can displace proprietary, single-vendor stacks for application development. To make open web technologies a better basis for future applications on mobile and desktop alike, we need to keep pushing the envelope of the web to include --- and in places exceed --- the capabilities of the competing stacks in question.

We also need a hill to take, in order to scope and focus our efforts. Recently we saw the pdf.js [] project expose small gaps that needed filling in order for "HTML5" to be a superset of PDF. We want to take a bigger step now, and find the gaps that keep web developers from being able to build apps that are --- in every way --- the equals of native apps built for the iPhone, Android, and WP7.

To that end, we propose a project we’re calling "Boot to Gecko" (B2G) to pursue the goal of building a complete, standalone operating system for the open web. It’s going to require work in a number of areas.

  • New web APIs: build prototype APIs for exposing device and OS capabilities to content (Telephony, SMS, Camera, USB, Bluetooth, NFC, etc.)
  • Privilege model: making sure that these new capabilities are safely exposed to pages and applications
  • Booting: prototype a low-level substrate for an Android-compatible device;
  • Applications: choose and port or build apps to prove out and prioritize the power of the system.

We will do this work in the open, we will release the source [] in real-time, we will take all successful additions to an appropriate standards group, and we will track changes that come out of that process. We aren't trying to have these native-grade apps just run on Firefox, we're trying to have them run on the web.

What's interesting about this is the fact that it is clearly an extension of the original web app project, but focused on the smartphone platform, and much more ambitious. There is already a home page, as well as an FAQ, but more useful is the Usenet group I mentioned earlier. In what follows, all quotations are taken from the thread there unless otherwise noted.

For example, here is Mike Shaver, Mozilla's VP, Engineering, providing some more details of the Android connection:

we want to take advantage of the work we've already done (and are doing) on Android, and the ease of getting devices that are known to work. Specifically, we're looking at Tegra 2 devices because they have hardware acceleration of open audio/video formats, and they match what we've got automated testing running on.
We intend to use as little of Android as possible, in fact. Really, we want to use the kernel + drivers, plus libc and ancillary stuff. It's not likely that we'll use the Android Java-wrapped graphics APIs, for example.

That's very wise, given the lawsuits swirling around various parts of Android currently. One reason why we need a free mobile operating system is that Android is not totally open, and there are various legal questions hanging over it. Concerned about this point, I asked Shaver for some more information:

Counsel-approved text about patents follows: “At this point, we don't believe that the ongoing patent litigation has any impact on the B2G project given that B2G currently does not contemplate using the disputed components of Android. In addition, the concept underlying B2G is not dependent on the Android OS, as other OS strata could be used over time."

In a group posting, Shaver also noted that this work was not intended to replace the current Firefox on Android:

We are certainly going to continue with Firefox on Android. It's improving all the time, and in pretty exciting ways. That's one of the reasons that we're starting our explorations on Android, in fact. We don't feel that we can integrate as deeply as we want on stock Android, for purposes of this project's goals. We don't want to have a browser next to the apps, we want to have the apps built with the web platform, including the system apps like the launcher and the dialer and SMS app and even the app manager/market itself.

We hope that the resulting APIs and capabilities make their way into all browsers on all platforms, because they will dramatically increase the reach of the web; we'll certainly be proposing the successful ones for standardization, and for in-development feedback.

Again, that indicates just how ambitious the project is: it really is about deepening the power of the open web on all platforms – and thus central to Mozilla's mission. That's one important aspect, but I think there's another.

As is well-known, for years the free software world has been obsessed with establishing GNU/Linux on the desktop as a real alternative to Microsoft Windows. That simply hasn't happened to any degree, for various reasons (mostly network effects due to lock-in at many levels). But it's becoming increasingly clear that the desktop is the past: the future belongs to mobile. One estimate of annual sales of all mobile phones has just been increased from 1.57 billion phones to 1.68 billion, while another study (for what it's worth) sees one billion smartphones being sold by 2016.

This means that in the long term, it is more important for there to be a viable free smartphone solution than one for the desktop. Forget about Year of the Linux Desktop, it's the Year of the Linux Smartphone that counts. As for current options, Android doesn't really cut it thanks to the proprietary elements that are typically used, and Google's own foot-dragging when it comes to releasing code, while MeeGo realistically doesn't stand a hope in the wake of Nokia's meltdown.

So there is a pressing need for a serious effort by the free software community to come up with a serious alternative. Mozilla is uniquely well placed to initiate and lead such a project: it's big, respected, well-funded and has already tackled something of equivalent importance before with Firefox (albeit on a smaller scale). Moreover, I think it needs just such a big challenge in order to give the organisation focus for the future.

With that exciting possibility in mind, I'm a little concerned that Mozilla is being too cautious here. For the moment, there are just three people assigned to the project, and they're not even full time. Here's what Shaver said when I asked him about this aspect:

We'll be adding thrust from within Mozilla, taking advantage of platform work that's already proposed or underway, and looking to encourage lots of people to come play with us. We've already had a lot of interest from ROM hackers and app developers and security researchers and so forth; if anything, it's a little more than we'd expected, so we need to do some organizing before everyone can really dive in.

For a project that was only launched a few days ago, that's a hopeful sign. Mozilla must now build on that interest and start to ramp up this project and make it a priority. If it gets it right, it might become Mozilla's next Firefox, with all that this implies for its long-term importance and impact.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter and, or on Google+. For other feature articles by Glyn Moody, please see the archive.

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