Firefox OS in flux as Mozilla loses technology chief to startup

Andreas Gal, co-founder of Mozilla's mobile OS project, joins others from the project in a startup to link new devices to the Net. It's part of big changes coming to Firefox OS.

Mozilla CTO Andreas Gal
Former Mozilla CTO Andreas Gal Mozilla

Mozilla, best known for its Firefox browser and operating system, has lost the man responsible for the core technologies of both products.

Chief Technology Officer Andreas Gal has left Mozilla after nearly seven years to launch a startup that hopes to provide the computing brains for the Internet of Things -- a broad idea that involves providing everything from traffic signals to door locks with connections to the Internet.

Gal, an expert in the JavaScript language that's central to Web programming, co-founded the Firefox OS effort, and his startup's two co-founders were seminal employees, too. He joined Mozilla in a crucial project to keep Firefox competitive with browsers like Google's Chrome.

His departure is part of major changes Mozilla faces with Firefox OS. While Gal is moving into a new market, a new competitive threat is arriving. Mozilla's former president, Li Gong, is at work on another startup nicknamed Gone Fishing that's building a mobile operating system relying on the same Web-based approach Firefox OS uses, CNET has learned. Gong was the Firefox OS business leader before being promoted to president in 2014; he left Mozilla in April, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Gal is sidestepping a smartphone market dominated by the twin powers of mobile operating systems, Google and Apple. Gong is taking them on directly.

Mozilla joined Microsoft, Samsung and BlackBerry in learning that it's brutally hard to compete successfully. Of the 334 million phones shipped during the first quarter of 2015, Google's Android OS accounted for 78 percent and Apple's iOS 18.3 percent, according to analysis firm IDC. That leaves just 3.7 percent for all other challengers.

But Gone Fishing offers a chance to replay the Firefox OS game with a different playbook. Mozilla's philosophical commitment to openness, choice and privacy didn't carry the day. By working with partners rather than pushing an agenda, Gone Fishing has a chance to see if pragmatism instead of principles will help loosen Apple's and Google's grip.

Losing longtime executives could unsettle Mozilla's effort to build a more open alternative to Android and iOS. But the project has already been in major flux: Mozilla CEO Chris Beard is trying to retool Firefox OS with a focus on features people will desire, backing away from its earlier push to power supercheap $25 smartphones, which wasn't working. And in a statement to CNET, Beard indicated that it's not a coincidence Gong is pursuing his current plans outside Mozilla.

"In the course of resetting our Firefox OS strategy, we looked at our management team and saw we needed to make a change," Beard said of Gong's departure. Gong declined to comment for this story.

Another Firefox OS executive is going from Mozilla to Gone Fishing, too: James Ho, Mozilla's senior director of mobile devices, according to both sources. Ho didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Goodbye phones, hello Internet of Things

Gal's startup, meanwhile, appears to be in a market mostly adjacent to Firefox OS.

The company will repurpose the hardware and lower-level software from the smartphone world into the foundational layers of Internet of Things products, Gal said in an interview. "We feel we have a lot of experience building technology stacks," he said.

Gal has co-founded his startup with two other Firefox OS alums. First is Chris Jones, who co-founded Firefox OS with Gal. Second is Michael Vines, the former senior director of technology at Qualcomm and the first Qualcomm engineer to work on Firefox OS.

Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich hired Gal in 2007 as part of a project to accelerate Firefox's performance running JavaScript programs -- a crucial part of Firefox and later Firefox OS's viability. In 2014, Eich moved into the CEO role and promoted Gal to his former CTO post, but Eich left Mozilla soon thereafter amid a political firestorm around a 2008 contribution he'd made to an anti-gay-marriage cause.

The startup's technology will use "the fundamental building blocks of smartphones [and] the fundamental building blocks Firefox OS is built on as well," Gal said. Firefox OS's most basic level is a project called Gonk derived from Google's Android version of the Linux operating system.

Unlike with Apple, Google and smartphones, the foundational technology for the Internet of Things is open to new players. "There's almost nothing there yet," Gal said.

Gal said he's open to working with Gone Fishing, too. Gong is a "great leader," he said, "one of the invisible co-founders of Firefox OS."

The Gone Fishing plan

Gone Fishing is working on a Web-based operating system for phones, wearable computing devices, and connected devices like smart TVs, sources said -- basically, anything that's not a personal computer. That vision is close to Firefox OS, which today powers phones and a Panasonic TV.

Li Gong, then Mozilla president, speaks at Mobile World Congress in March. In April he left to become CEO of a startup that for now is called Gone Fishing .
Li Gong, then Mozilla president, speaks at Mobile World Congress in March. In April he left to become CEO of a startup that for now is called Gone Fishing . Stephen Shankland/CNET

The startup's idea is to fulfill demand from phone makers and carriers for an alternative to Android that's more of a departure than Microsoft's Windows Mobile. Building an OS with Web technology offers new ways to differentiate -- for example by skipping app stores like Google Play or the App Store used to distribute software.

Mozilla's mission is to keep the Internet's technology open so that users have control over their online lives -- they can switch browsers, operating systems or online services without being locked into one company's corporate agenda. That drives Mozilla's priorities, like fighting against digital rights management (DRM) copy-protection technology and the patent-encumbered H.264 video compression standard.

But phone and TV makers working with content distributors aren't necessarily so opposed to H.264 and DRM, and Gone Fishing could more easily work with them.

It's less clear how Gone Fishing will actually make money. One source said Gone Fishing could charge companies with online services for a place in its ecosystem, such as, for example, Google Maps for navigation, Baidu for search or Line for text messaging. Another part of the company's strategy will be pursuing customers in China, a massive market, another source said.

Gone Fishing has some time to figure things out. It's raised venture funding -- at least $50 million, sources said.

Like Gal's startup, the company can repurpose existing open-source software, so it can release an initial operating system this year, but it's not yet clear what technology foundations it'll use. The obvious option is Firefox OS itself, but other choices include Google's mobile version of Chrome for Android and Apple's core browser technology called WebKit.

Peculiarly, the open nature of Web programming means Gone Fishing's operating system actually could help Firefox OS as well as compete with it. That's because a modern Web app -- in principle at least -- can run on any browser supporting modern Web technology standards. One of Firefox's biggest challenges is attracting app support, and a competitive new Web-based OS could help convince developers to bring programs like Facebook's WhatsApp to the mobile Web.

An OS alternative

One way or another, having an alternative mobile operating system could be important. Customers today seem happy with Android and iOS, but if Google or Apple takes a turn for the worse, people will have a hard time switching to something else, because today's developers tailor their software and services for those two operating systems.

Mozilla also has had a chance to learn from its mistakes and try a new playbook, too. The organization isn't abandoning its principles, but it's got new leadership and is trying to build a product that people want to use because of its features and abilities.

To try anew, it's going back to the way it got Firefox to catch on a decade ago when the competitor was Microsoft's Internet Explorer: "We will provide direct distribution of Ignite [the next Firefox OS version] builds to early adopters with existing unlocked Android devices as part of our new development model to build community and influence," Beard said in an email sent to Mozilla community members in May.

And Mozilla isn't backing off, Beard said: "We will aggressively invest in the Firefox OS opportunity."

Correction, 5 p.m. PT: Clarifies the relationship between Gal's startup and Gong's startup. Gal said he is open to a partnership, but he didn't confirm there is one.

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