At last week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Mozilla unveiled their Firefox mobile OS. In my opinion, it is a foreshadowing of the future of mobile apps.
The Browser is the OS
If you’re able to watch the first minute of the video above, you’ll immediately see a key distinction of the operating system – it’s a browser. In other words, every application is run inside of a browser, including traditionally native functionality such as the phone dialer and camera.
A New Concept
The first reaction is that Mozilla is introducing a new and unproven concept, but this is a trail that has already been cut and cleared by Google. Their line of Chromebooks uses the Chrome OS in the same way at a laptop level. In other words, a Chromebook is a machine with a dedicated Chrome browser that allows you to surf the web and use all of your favorite web applications like Gmail, Google Docs, Facebook, Twitter, Runkeeper and more.
With their Chromebooks, Google has demonstrated that for most users, you can eliminate all of the overhead required to run native apps from a laptop. It provides benefits such as rapid turn on, better protection against viruses, and data protection since files are stored in the cloud and can be accessed from any machine.
In fact, I anticipate that Google will soon come out with a mobile phone that uses Chrome as the OS. It only requires that device APIs are opened up to the browser, which are close to being standardized by the W3C as Mozilla points out in the above video.
Didn’t Zuckerberg Say HTML5 Isn’t Ready?
While some feel that Mozilla is just repeating the mistakes of others, I don’t buy it. At least not for the reasons outlined in this article by Terrence O’Brien of Engadget. I believe that Terrence’s biggest mistake is that he calls out HTML5 apps as an inefficient solution. The problem with this logic is that apps are not written in HTML5 – it’s just a mark-up language.
To see how two different coding styles can achieve different results, we can use Facebook as an example. Mark Zuckerberg stated that using web technologies was a huge mistake and that it was the reason the Facebook mobile experience was poor before switching to native app development. Why then, was Sencha able to create a Facebook app using the browser that does not suffer from performance issues (open fb.html5isready.com in a mobile browser to see for yourself). The reason – coding practices. In other words, it’s not the technology that’s a problem, it’s the implementation.
Balance in The Force
The idea is sound, but in order to succeed Mozilla needs the support of manufacturers and carriers, which are lending their support. Why? They want an alternative to control the dominance of Apple and Google that is not controlled by any one entity. With Mozilla, the power is in the standards set by the community, which might be a little scary for Mozilla since users will be able to switch operating systems easily, but it’s not different than what they’ve dealt with on the desktop with their Firefox browser.
For further reading, this article by David Meyer at GigaOM provides more insight as to why the manufacturers and carriers are lending their support to the Firefox OS.
Back to the Future
Mozilla’s strategy is not as much a preview of the future but a return to the past. The desktop has already passed through this cycle of native applications to web applications, and the web has won. Nearly all of the applications I use these days (e.g., email, calendar, contact management, expenses, CRM, project management) are web-based, and the few applications that are native (e.g. Office, Photoshop and QuickBooks) have already moved to a web-based model. For this reason alone, I find it extremely surprising that people continue to sing the praises of native apps when they’ve lost the desktop war. I see the native app banner being carried by Apple, Google, Microsoft and RIM who continue to restrict web app capabilities on their hardware in an effort to lock developers and consumers into their platform.
A Matter of Time
Personally, I’m excited and believe that Mozilla’s efforts will prove that web-based applications can match the performance of their native counterparts. And once developers experience freedom from the chains of platform development, we will see another renaissance in mobile app development. One in which we can build once and serve everyone, without having to worry about platform dependency.