Mozilla takes aim at the OS with 'Boot to Gecko'

The Mozilla Foundation, the group behind popular open-source web browser Firefox, has indicated its intention to take on the likes of Android and Chrome OS with a new project dubbed 'Boot to Gecko.'

Announced late yesterday by Andreas Gal, a Mozilla researcher, Boot to Gecko is a project which aims to 'fill in the gaps' that prevent web apps written in HTML5 from being as efficient, as powerful, and as accessible as native smartphone apps.

"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," Gal writes in a posting to the mozilla.dev.platform Usenet group.

"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. 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," Gal claimed, "we're trying to have them run on the web."

The project's aim is wide: the group is planning to develop new application programming interfaces that allow content - in other words, web apps - to access native device capabilities like telephony, cameras, USB connectivity, Bluetooth, and even Near-Field Communications hardware. At the same time, the group hopes to introduce a privilege model which will prevent that access from being abused or enabled without a user's consent.

More impressively, Gal details a desire to create a "low-level substrate for an Android-compatible device," which would allow a smartphone or tablet to boot directly into a web operating system in a similar manner to Google's Chromebook laptops.

"This project is in its infancy," Gal admits. "Some pieces of it are only captured in our heads today, others aren’t fully explored. We’re talking about it now because we want expertise from all over Mozilla - and from people who aren't yet part of Mozilla - to inform and build the project we’re outlining here."

Answering queries from the community about the mobile focus - a distinct divergence from other web-based operating system projects like Google's Chrome OS and the Ubuntu-based Jolicloud - Mozilla's Mike Shaver explained that Android represents a key opportunity for low-level device access.

"These days the device makers are moving to Android," he explained. "To get all the HAL benefits, we want to reuse its lower layers. We might prototype some stuff on a PC, but the project is really about the device space. We had to pick somewhere, and this seems like where the energy is best spent. Desktop devices tend to be harder to get good open drivers for without pulling in things like X, which we don't want to do.

"All open source is a requirement in my view," Shaver added, before admitting that it may prove difficult if the project can't get the support of device vendors to supply device drivers under a compatible licence. "We'll see how this goes."

Unlike other projects which aim in this direction, the group has declared that it won't be investigating the use of native x86 or ARM code in the place of languages like JavaScript, as with Google's NaCl Native Client project. "We have no plans to implement Native Client at this time," explained Chris Jones.

Initial builds of the project will be targeted at devices running Nvidia's system-on-chip, Jones added. "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," he explained. "Right now 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."

While the project's home page is a little sparse at present, more details are available on the mozila.dev.platform thread. Although it's undeniably an interesting project, it risks being yet another entry into a market - cloud-based operating systems - which has yet to fully prove itself.