Mozilla is currently a friend to Android, supporting the Firefox browser for smartphones and tablets, but their long term vision is to develop open software that will eventually replace Google’s mobile OS. The project is called Boot to Gecko (B2G), and it’s a lot closer to reality than many realize.
Jay Sullivan, VP of Products at Mozilla, recently shared his vision for the Firefox project in 2012. “We want the platform in Firefox to enable app-quality experiences and developer productivity that rivals native platforms.” Very simply, they believe the open web can displace proprietary, single-vendor stacks (Android, iOS, WP7, etc) for application development.
You can see more of the Mozilla’s vision to become something bigger than Firefox in a video they recently uploaded to YouTube.
So does that mean we will see a Firefox phone? Publicly, Mozilla says they have no plans to build or distribute a custom device. However, if Boot to Gecko is successful then it could form the basis for one.
Their first test will come later this month at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Mozilla will demonstrate a working version of Boot to Gecko that developers can use as their day-to-day phone. The team at Mozilla selected the Samsung Galaxy S II as their development platform because the device was commercially available to Mozilla employees and it includes all the latest hardware like NFC.
If things go according to plan, Mozilla hopes they can convince an ODM or OEM to help them launch the first actual device that would ship with Boot to Gecko.
In an online FAQ, Mozilla says that they don’t expect Boot to Gecko will affect their relationships with other organizations such as Apple, Google, and Microsoft, but this project clearly competes with other products that those companies are working on.
Google’s version of their web operating system is called Chromium OS and it currently targets the desktop environment. These products are already in the market under the Chromebook brand, with retail prices starting at $299. I received a Samsung Chromebook at last year’s Google IO, but it didn’t quite offer the experience that I wanted so I gave it to my mom. She loves it.
Mozilla doesn’t seem to think that Boot to Gecko competes with Chromium OS because they are “aiming at mobile/tablet devices rather than a notebook form factor.” Google might have started with notebooks, but they already acknowledged that a tablet version of Chrome OS is in the works.
I have said before that I think Chrome OS will eventually come to smartphones, but I didn’t think it would happen for another five years. Google recently released Chrome browser for Android, so it’s not that much of a stretch to assume they are working on Chrome OS for smartphones.
Now with Mozilla pushing the boundaries of an open web operating system on mobile devices, it could force Google to accelerate their plans. Or not. Mozilla only has 20 engineers working full-time on Boot to Gecko, and I doubt that Google sees them as a threat yet.
Whatever happens, I’m interested to see where this goes – both with Mozilla’s Boot to Gecko, and Google’s Chrome OS. Google could definitely make Chrome OS their mobile platform of choice one day, but they already have so much invested in Android. I can’t picture any current scenario where Google would stop supporting Android, but anything is possible.
The main benefit of a web operating system to the average consumer, is a platform that is always up to date. Every time a user would turn their device on, it would automatically update itself. This would certainly solve Android’s nasty fragmentation problem, but I’m not sure if the wireless carriers are ready to go down that road.
Eventually though, someone will launch a retail mobile device with a true web operating system. It could be Mozilla or Google, or heck even Facebook. I’ll be at Mobile World Congress this month to let you know how close Mozilla is to achieving their vision.
How long do you think it will be before we see a smartphone that boots to the web?
Update: The collection of web apps that make up the UI for Boot to Gecko is called Gaia. The following are the designs provided by the Gaia team of the browser and gallery web apps. Apparently it was already demoed in public because I found some pics from a Dutch site and Japanese site.
Update 2: Ryan Paul of Arstechnica just posted a first look at Boot to Gecko and Gaia.