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Will Firefox OS be dead on arrival?

As an idealistic thought experiment, the truly open Firefox OS (formerly Boot to Gecko) is captivating – but in reality, as it prepares to enter one of the world’s most fiercely competitive markets, its chance of success is close to nil.

In a nutshell, Firefox OS is a Linux-based OS that boots up into a Gecko-based environment that looks like the lovechild of iOS and Android. Every user-facing element of Firefox OS, from the UI (Gaia), through the dialler, to the apps, is programmed using open web technologies – HTML, JavaScript, and CSS – and rendered using Gecko, the exact same rendering engine used by desktop and mobile versions of the Firefox web browser. If you imagine a smartphone-sized computer that automatically loads Firefox after boot-up, and the only apps you can run are web apps, then that’s a fairly good analogy of Firefox OS.

The initial drive behind Firefox OS (then Boot to Gecko) was to broaden the horizon of open web standards, to add new functionality to HTML5, JavaScript, and CSS – such as low-level access to cameras, radios, and other hardware – so that web apps could be as functional as native, compiled apps.

At some point, someone at Mozilla decided to turn this project into a full-blown operating system. Alcatel and ZTE are on board to make Firefox OS smartphones, and mobile carriers around the world are whooping, cheering, and clamouring to cast off the shackles of the iOS oppressor and embrace the Fox.

We weren’t at the meeting when Mozilla decided to make Boot to Gecko an actual smartphone OS, but I have a pretty good idea of how it probably went down: “The smartphone market is dominated by two draconian ecosystems, iOS and Android. Somebody needs to save those poor, hapless users who have no alternative but to continue selling their souls to their corporate overlords. We did it once in 2004 when we unseated the megalomaniacal Microsoft Internet Explorer, and by Jove we’ll do it again!”

The problem is, of course, that the current smartphone market couldn’t be further removed from Browser War I and II. When Firefox charged down the grassy hill wielding nothing more than a claymore and some garish face paint, Microsoft hadn’t updated Internet Explorer 6 in over three years. The worldwide web, with its penchant for new and disruptive technologies, was eager for change – and along came Firefox. Faced with a rapidly diminishing market share, Microsoft finally pulled its finger out and released IE7 in 2006 – some five years after IE6′s release – but by that point it was too late.

I can see Mozilla’s point: If the walled gardens of iOS and Android go unchecked, we’ll have another Internet Explorer-like situation on our hands. It’s just not that simple, though. There is so much competition in the mobile space right now. Yes, iOS and Android have the lion’s share of the market, but there’s also BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Tizen, Ubuntu, Bada, Symbian, Brew, WebOS, and MeeGo – and that’s just off the top of my head.

Firefox OS is a nice idea, but it’s predicated on open standards: Anyone can take Firefox OS’s additions to HTML5 and produce their own implementation. If developers get on board – at least one Mozilla bigwig has stated that they “want to attract hundreds of thousands of developers” – and lots of open web apps begin to appear, then Google can simply implement the same specification in Chrome, Microsoft can implement it in IE10, and Apple can implement it in Safari. Even if you’re worried about the commercial interests of Apple or Google – or if you’re a carrier trying to extricate yourself – there’s nothing stopping you from installing the Android Open Source Project on your phone.

Mozilla shouldn’t be disheartened, though. After all, it is because of Firefox and other open source projects like Apache and Linux that the web, smartphones, and the technology sector in general are so healthy. 15 years ago, as IE6 and Netscape fought over various non-standard implementations of HTML, JavaScript, and CSS, no one would’ve predicted that today there would be standard implementations of all three. 10 years ago, as Microsoft picked fluff out of its navel and lorded over a 99 per cent share of the PC market, no one would’ve guessed that today you could write a full-blown program with open web technologies and have it run equally well on dozens of different software platforms.

Image Credit: Laptop Mag