Hands-on Boot to Gecko: Interesting, but far from baked

The makers of Firefox have a new baby on the way, a Firefox-driven mobile OS called Boot to Gecko. CNET's Seth Rosenblatt shares his thoughts on the "Mozillaphone" after some hands-on time with the very rough, very in-development device.

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NEW ORLEANS--Mozilla may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to mobile technology, but that may change early next year. Its mobile operating system code-named Boot to Gecko is developing rapidly, but it will face challenges both technical and tech cultural.

Judging from my colleague Stephen Shankland's take on how Boot to Gecko performed at its public unveiling in February, Mozilla has definitely made progress with the phone. The build I used was installed on a Samsung Galaxy S II.

A demonstration of B2G (Boot to Gecko) at Mobile World Congress shows that Mozilla's browser-based mobile OS can send and receive text messages. It also can send and receive calls, play games, and be used to read e-books.
A demonstration of B2G (Boot to Gecko) at Mobile World Congress shows that Mozilla's browser-based mobile OS can send and receive text messages. It also can send and receive calls, play games, and be used to read e-books. Stephen Shankland/CNET

The interface appears to be a mix of traditional iOS-style app icons, and Windows Phone-style interactive tiles. Flipping through the pages of apps, some of which were real while others were built as place-holders, was an impressively zippy experience. That may have a lot to do with the Samsung's powerful hardware, but the Mozilla phone uses hardware acceleration HTML5 APIs to leverage the graphics processor. This is a necessity, of course: nobody's going to want a sluggish device, even if it does promote a more open mobile experience.

Openness has always been part of Mozilla's approach to browsers, and it's a big part of the philosophy driving Boot to Gecko, said Todd Simpson, chief of innovation at Mozilla. "The real difference between a Web page and an app is that Apple and Android have taught people to pay for apps, and the Web has taught people that sites are free," he said during an interview at CTIA.

The apps on the phone were not bug-free, but that wasn't surprising for a pre-alpha build. Because the phone runs on Mozilla's Gecko browser engine with an underlying Linux kernel, the version of Firefox is actually entirely built in JavaScript. It's not clear what, if any, security risks that could pose, but there's no question JavaScript exploits are a major source of headaches for browser makers.

The other apps were hardly revolutionary, but that's fine when the point is simply to get a device working and up to public usability standards. An app created to demo the WebGL and hardware acceleration APIs showed a graphics-heavy crystal skull rotating. The game Jelly Drop, built in HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript, was responsive. While the camera itself wasn't fully functional yet, the photo galleries were easy to navigate and video playback was smooth.

Although the company hasn't said this explicitly, it appears that Mozilla is gunning for the feature phone. Mozilla's first partner carrier, Telefonica, said that Boot to Gecko phones will be 10 times cheaper than the iPhone. Simpson confirmed some specifications when I spoke with him, including that the operating system will work on devices powered as low as a 600 mHz and with 256 MB of RAM.

Other key components of the Mozilla phone experience are still being developed. The biggest is Persona, a robust identification and log-in system that Mozilla hopes will present an alternative to Facebook and Google. Mozilla will use it, said Simpson, to tie together its cross-platform options, from desktop Firefox to mobile devices to Web site log-ins. Mozilla wants it to be a W3C-standards approved, Internet identity "that doesn't leak data by design," Simpson said. It will include payment options, too, with PayPal for people on desktops and carrier billing for Boot to Gecko.

"Identity is a messy space, and succeeding is not going to happen overnight. It's a long road to put users back at the center of their Web experience," he added.

One other problem that Boot to Gecko currently has is the lack of decent name. While it may sound glib, a good name can help sell a product, and Mozilla will face a steep uphill battle attempting to gain market-share against practically every major vendor in the handset and Web markets when the phones launch in late 2012 or early 2013. Simpson said that a product name hasn't been agreed on yet, but chuckled when he said, "We are working on a better name."

While it's truly impressive how much progress Mozilla has made on Boot to Gecko, it's far from a done deal. Even if the company can nail all of its ambitious technological goals, it's hard to say that enough people will pick it up to make it successful. Critical praise isn't enough to convince people to take on new tech, as evidenced by Microsoft's struggle with the anemic adoption of Windows Phone. Mozilla will have to reach deep to get people to care enough about a Boot to Gecko phone, and although it sounds like its low price point will drive curiosity, converting that interest into sales could prove significantly harder.

 

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