In this guest column, Robert Nyman, a Mozilla technical evangelist and editor of the Mozilla Hacks website, provides a perspective on the history and evolution of Firefox OS. Nyman writes on the occasion of the first Firefox OS device, the $90 ZTE Open smartphone, becoming available for sale in Madrid, Spain.
The launch of Firefox OS — my thoughts and some history
by Robert Nyman
It all started about two years ago. I had recently joined Mozilla, and about one or two months in, a wiki page surfaced. It was called B2G.
B2G stood for Boot to Gecko, a name implying that you would boot into Gecko, the rendering engine of Firefox, and a codename that stuck around for about a year. Apparently it was about building a mobile operating system based on, and targeted at, the Open Web. The wiki page took most of us by surprise, including our Press and Evangelism team, since it got some traction in press before we got briefed about what it actually was. We scurried around and had meetings to come to a conclusion to what it actually was.
Mozilla’s Boot-to-Gecko (B2G) wiki page
Almost two years ago I wrote my first article for the Mozilla Hacks blog about it: Announcing Boot to Gecko (B2G) — Booting to the Web.
Over time, the project developed and a lot of things were ironed out, in establishing what the main focus would be, what the core undertaking encompassed and how to move forward.
What it really is
The idea with Firefox OS is to develop a mobile platform that is completely open, and which gives a lot more possibilities to developers, partners and, ultimately, consumers. As I’ve stated many times, the idea is not to compete with iPhones and high-end Android phones, but rather to offer an alternative to emerging markets. How can people who have no phones, or old feature phones, get access to a smartphone for a really low cost?
How can we continue to ensure that the Internet is as democratic as it can be, that as many as possible can take part and contribute without having to pay many hundreds of US dollars to just get in through the front door?
There’s an estimate of two billion (!) more people coming online in the next few years, and a vast majority of them will do it through mobile. How can we help them, give them affordable options?
We at Mozilla believe we can do that through a completely open device, enabling everyone to contribute to it, afford it and also inspire and influence other players in the mobile field to make their devices more open, more powerful when it comes to the Open Web and priced at a realistic level.
True open source
From day one, the repository was available on GitHub. Day one. Everything that has been developed since then has been real-time, and possible for anyone to see, analyze and contribute to. The project first lived in a person’s own repository, but was then moved into a Mozilla one.
My own belief — and I’ve stated this many times — is that where I personally think Apple took the wrong path was with how to build things for the iPhone. With the first version they said that all should be the web and you could access it through the mobile Safari web browser. The problem was, of course, that no web site could access anything on the device, like contacts, camera etc. Basically, while the iPhone was a massive leap forward for mobile phones, developers were less than excited with the lack of possibilities for them to build things.
Then Apple went down the path with Objective-C, The App Store and the rest is history. I much more wish that they had chosen to make the web part much stronger, give it access to local device APIs and evolve into the powerful platform it deserves to be. But alas, that didn’t happen, and they went with their own closed and proprietary approach.
So, someone else had to make it happen. In August of 2011, I wrote the first blog post about our WebAPIs iniative at Mozilla, which targeted just that need of improving access for the web layer. Since then I’ve written a number of articles about various APIs and our dedication to standardize these — because if we only did it for us, we wouldn’t do the best for the Open Web.
My most extensive post on APIs was Using WebAPIs to make the web layer more capable, which I believe is a good introduction to just how many things you can do from the web layer.
Apps — what are they and do we need them?
With Apple’s move with the App Store, everyone wanted to create their own store, where they had complete control, their own APIs and with the goal of making a lot of money. Which is fair, they are businesses and they protect their interests.
Personally, I believe the web and just using URLs to get something is the most powerful thing we have, and something we should cherish and protect for the future. And then if you need a shortcut (bookmarks, anyone?) you can add a web page/URL to your home screen and that’s it.
Users will gain from this and developers will need to build with one technology — the web — instead of having a separate team for each mobile platform. With Firefox OS, the goal has not been to have developers learn something from scratch, but rather utilize and reuse heir existing Open Web technologies.
Since user’s have gotten so used to apps, we are offering that possibility in Firefox OS as well, but have made sure that it’s based on the Open Web (I’ve written more in detail about this in Getting started with Open Web Apps — why and how).
We also have a Firefox Marketplace where you can submit your apps, for findability, payments and more. What’s crucial to know here, though is that you don’t have to build an app if you don’t want to, you don’t have to use the Marketplace — apps are installable from anywhere. Over time, we hope that other people can create their own dedicated Marketplaces as well, for certain topics or local interests.
You could just as well continue to build your own mobile HTML5 web site — with Responsive Design, of course — and you will be good to go on Firefox OS. I see apps an optional approach, not the one and only. The choice is yours.
Finding mobile web sites that are only on the web
Also, for users, if you swipe to the left from the home screen in Firefox OS, you will get to the integrated Everything.me service — finding mobile web sites out there that you can test first, and then pin to your home screen if you want to.
Along came Web Activities
With above mentioned WebAPIs, there are some things on a mobile that are to sensitive to expose and give complete access to, like telephony or SMS. But, naturally there are use cases where you’d want to trigger and interact with them from your content or app. Therefore, we introduced Web Activities, which gives you a simple and powerful way to do just that, and with a connected user experience and approval.
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It has also been interesting to see how tools and options have developed, to test this open platform in a simple and lightweight manner. I’m tremendously grateful for the work by Myk Melez and others on the Firefox OS Simulator, and I’ve happy to have been able to help developers by creating the Firefox OS Boilerplate App — all based on developers’ needs and input.
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When it took off
When it really got exciting, and things started to take off, was about six months after the initial announcement. It was time for the massive Mobile World Conference in Barcelona, the place to be at if you were doing something in the mobile sector.
I watched it from afar, and tried to assist the announcements and attention with writing about it in Mozilla’s Boot to Gecko — The Web is the Platform and Gaia, Mozilla’s user interface for Boot to Gecko — all web technologies. It gained an enormous interest and from then, it has been busy days.
Mobile World Conference, anno 2013
This year I decided to go to Mobile World Congress, I had to be a part of what was going on. And it was such a wonderful and extremely intense experience! Working from early morning till late nights, talking, learning, sharing. It was wonderful to see all the interest and hope around Firefox OS, something that I believe must be somewhat akin to the 1.0 release of Firefox. How can we create something open and make a difference?
Robert Nyman at Mobile World Congress, February 2013
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Today’s the day
Movistar ZTE Open
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Yesterday we announced that the first Firefox OS devices are coming into the market, and today the very first devices will be available for sale in Madrid, Spain. There are a number of other countries and places to be announced in the very near future, and with a lot of hardware and operator partners, this is so exciting!
There has been so much hard work by so many people going into this: to make it work, to get through the hard times, to seal the the deals, to understand, educate and inspire developers. A lot of effort has gone into this, but for me, I don’t regret one second. And thank you to eveyone for all your contributions to this project!
I was there day one. I was along for the entire ride, from the first code commit to seeing the actual devices being launched, to people owning them. It has been a magic experience, and frankly, I’m a bit touched. Within one’s career, I don’t believe many get the chances to be there from the initial spark to the the launch of a completely new mobile operating system.
And this is not the end. It has just begun.