Firefox OS 2.0 starts emerging from its cocoon

Mozilla's modernized mobile OS is catching up to Apple and Google rivals with improvements necessary to carry Firefox OS beyond its bare-bones roots. Copy-paste and find-my-phone tools patch significant shortcomings.

Firefox OS 2.0 will get a more active lock screen that shows a scrolling list of notifications and music controls.notification
Firefox OS 2.0 will get a more active lock screen that shows a scrolling list of notifications and music controls.notification Mozilla

Firefox OS, the mobile operating system Mozilla hopes will loosen the grasp Google and Apple hold over the mobile market, is getting a fresh look and new features with the upcoming version 2.0.

Sören Hentzschel, a Mozilla representative in Germany, published mockups of the new operating system on his blog, and more details have been appearing in Mozilla's bug-tracking system in recent days. The new version, due to begin final testing in late July, shows new polish and demonstrates that Mozilla is moving beyond the Androidesque behavior of early incarnations.

Mozilla's plans for new Firefox OS 2.0 features include copy and paste support, a new universal-search mechanism for launching apps and switching among them, a more useful lock screen, a find-my phone system, and more. Those features will be crucial to the success of the nascent OS and therefore to Mozilla's continued relevance, but the first version only arrived halfway through 2013, lagging Google's Android and Apple's iOS by years.

As other rivals such as Microsoft, BlackBerry, and Palm have shown, it's hard to build a competitive operating system, lure partners and developers, and attract customers given the momentum and market power of incumbents. In the past quarter of 2014, Android accounted for 78 percent and iOS 18 percent of the 290 million smartphones shipped, according to analyst firm IDC, and their respective app stores each have more than a million apps available. Mozilla has an active program to recruit developers, but it's competing for scarce resources; some developers don't even have time to support both iOS and Android.

With Firefox OS, Mozilla hopes to bring the relative openness of the Web to mobile devices and thereby break down barriers that confine people's data, apps, and services to Google and Apple technology ecosystems. Mozilla has lined up many partners such as LG Electronics and Telefonica to realize the vision and sees ultra-cheap smartphones as the way into the market.

And the new features won't be enough to put Firefox OS ahead of Mozilla's main rivals technologically. Android and iOS already have them, generally, although Firefox OS's browser-based design means it has a chance to stand out through tight integration of Web sites, Web apps, and search. For example, finding and installing a Web app can in principle become as easy as searching for a Web site then loading it. Done right, that could be a faster, easier operation than going through Google Play and Apple's App Store.

Making the challenge even more difficult, Mozilla right now is distracted by the brief and controversial CEO tenure of Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich.

Focusing on programming could offer some respite from the politics, and there's plenty of work to be done to modernize Mozilla's mobile OS. Firefox OS 2.0 will add several new features, including edge-swipe gestures. Swiping in from the left or right sides cycles among apps. Swiping down partway from the top will reveal an all-purpose search bar, and swiping down farther will show a task switcher.

The new version of the OS also should be more responsive to touch gestures. People strongly dislike lags between a finger swipe and a device's response.

Other notable additions on the Firefox OS roadmap for version 2.0 include:

  • The ability to select, copy, and paste text.
  • A more useful lock screen that shows music player controls and a scrollable list of notifications.
  • A FindMyFox phone locator feature, including remote wipe, location tracking, and the ability to make the phone emit a noise.
  • Integration with Firefox Accounts, a single-sign-on feature for the Firefox Marketplace, FindMyFox, and other services.
  • New features for creating ringtones from music.
  • Smarter typing input that invisibly increases the size of a letter's tap target based on predictions of what letters might come next.
  • NFC (near-field communication) support for sharing photos, contact information, and Web addresses with other NFC-equipped devices.
  • The ability to dial somebody directly from the call log.
  • A feature to quickly jump to the top of the email inbox; scrolling upward will reveal a "go to top" bar for faster navigation.

Less dramatic changes, including a new camera app, are set to arrive sooner with Firefox OS 1.4, which is due to enter final testing in about two weeks.

 

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