This story was written by Keith Dawson for UBM DeusM’s community Web site Develop in the Cloud, sponsored by AT&T. It is archived here for informational purposes only because the Develop in the Cloud site is no more. This material is Copyright 2012 by UBM DeusM.

Firefox OS Aims To Shape Up the Mobile Web

An HTML5 alternative to non-portable apps and walled gardens.

Mozilla is riding to the rescue once again, as the organization did 8 years ago, to save the open Web. Last time it was Firefox, now it's mobile Firefox OS.

Do you remember being confused when Google introduced Chrome OS, an operating system that is essentially one big Chrome browser? Here we go again. Next year you will be able to run Firefox OS, which is essentially a mobile browser running on low-cost smartphone hardware.

Mozilla is an unrelenting champion of the open Web. It is arguable that its Firefox browser, introduced in 2004, saved the Web by re-introducing competition in a browser market 94 percent dominated by Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Today IE represents between 30 and 50 percent of browsers, and falling; and competition is vigorous.

Not so on the mobile Web. There it's mostly the somewhat open Android and the not-even-close-to-open iOS. Even when developers write HTML5-based apps for a more portable experience, they lean so heavily towards Webkit that openness is severely compromised.

Mozilla has not traditionally been associated with the mobile side of things. The organization hopes to change that perception as Firefox OS makes its way out into the world beginning early next year in Brazil. The new OS will be based on HTML5, and the promise is that any apps you acquire for it will be portable -- you can take them with you to a new phone, any phone, as long as it runs a modern browser.

Mozilla is playing a long game here. There are around 2.5 billion people now online. The next 2.5 billion will come from the developing world, Mozilla's CEO Gary Kovacs told last week. Mozilla is working with partners, such as the Spanish telecommunications company Telefonica, that can get low-cost smartphones into lots of hands in the developing world, at "feature phone" prices. If those phones are running Firefox OS, no one will have to ask permission to write an app for them or to make one available, in contrast to the way Android and iOS, and their app stores, work now.

The organization is "working to standardize some 40 APIs around various phone operations so that Web apps will work the same across different phones," according to All Things D. (We alluded to this standards work in our earlier piece on browser monoculture.) Some simple APIs, for example vibration and battery level, are already well defined, but many more are still being hammered out -- functions like dialing and SMS.

If Mozilla makes a go of this complex effort, and in a few years' time there are hundreds of millions or a billion new phones around the world running Firefox OS, developers will have even more reason to target Web-standard HTML5 with their apps. Such an outcome would be a big win, as mobile computing would begin to enjoy the fruits of the openness that the Web has led us to expect.