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Mozilla helps modernize feature phones powered by Firefox tech

It's helping KaiOS update an offshoot of the Firefox OS project that Mozilla canceled in 2017.

A few of the 34 feature phones available today powered by KaiOS, a browser-based operating system.

A few of the 34 feature phones available today that are powered by KaiOS, a browser-based operating system.

KaiOS Technologies

Years after Mozilla canceled its own Firefox OS project, the nonprofit is again involved in work to make its browser technology a core foundation for mobile phone software. This time it's helping out KaiOS Technologies, the company that picked up the Firefox OS pieces and now offers them for use in feature phones as a rival to Apple's iOS and Google's Android.

KaiOS announced a Mozilla partnership Wednesday to modernize the browser engine that's core to the software. The current KaiOS software uses a version of Mozilla's Gecko browser engine -- the foundation of Firefox -- that dates back to 2016, Mozilla said. With KaiOS, apps run on the browser foundation, similar to Google's Chrome OS for laptops.

The modernization should improve security, make apps run faster and more smoothly, and open up new programming abilities like WebAssembly for more-sophisticated apps and WebGL 2.0 for better games graphics, KaiOS said. Those are abilities you might not expect on feature phones, lower-cost models with small screens and physical keypads for punching in phone numbers.

Terms of the partnership weren't disclosed. But it could provide a significant boost for a project that's found a rare foothold competing against Apple and Google in the enormously important mobile market.

KaiOS is used today on inexpensive, lower-end feature phones, one of the markets Mozilla originally focused on with Firefox OS. That's something of a backwater, but it's still important for some customers who don't want to go full-on smartphone, and so far 120 million KaiOS phones have been sold. Carriers want cheap flip phones to offer in stores, and KaiOS offers a way to build them and include some apps like WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook and Google Maps.

Newer software often requires more powerful hardware, but KaiOS said the Gecko modernization won't be a problem. "The latest iterations of Gecko improve memory efficiency, and we're contributing our expertise in this area to ensure that the updates run smoothly on all KaiOS-enabled devices," the company said.

Mozilla didn't say how many engineers will be involved with the collaboration but said it will "involve many areas of Firefox," including Mozilla's help with test engineering and adding new low-level Gecko abilities.

Firefox OS was a top priority for Mozilla under former leaders like co-founder Brendan Eich. When Chris Beard took over as chief executive, though, Mozilla shifted the Firefox OS push to higher-end phones where iOS and Android were stronger. After concluding that effort was a failure, Mozilla scrapped its Firefox OS phone ambitions in 2017. With Beard now having left Mozilla, Chairwoman Mitchell Baker is now acting CEO.

Firefox OS is open-source software, though, and KaiOS picked up the reins. Google invested $22 million in KaiOS in 2018 as part of an effort to spread its software and services to developing markets.