Mozilla: Money will prod phone makers to keep Firefox OS current

The developer of the browser-based operating system will use financial incentives to keep phones current to try to avoid some problems that afflict Android today.

Firefox OS 1.3 is the latest version of Mozilla's open-source, browser-based mobile OS.
Firefox OS 1.3 is the latest version of Mozilla's open-source, browser-based mobile OS. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Mozilla thinks it's got an incentive to keep smartphone makers releasing new versions of its Firefox OS mobile operating system: money.

The nonprofit organization contracts with handset makers and carriers to bring Firefox OS phones to market, and it's structuring those partnerships to make sure the allies share Mozilla's interest in keeping Firefox OS up to date, said Chris Lee, director of product for Firefox OS.

"We are working so the incentives and goals are aligned," Lee said. Manufacturers make a profit when they sell a device, but support after it's shipped costs them money. "We're looking to share in the benefit and revenue generated with partners so updates are part of the experience," Lee said.

Mozilla releases Firefox OS updates every quarter, which is half as often as the six-week release cycle for the Firefox browser itself. It's hard for hardware companies to keep up, though, especially given software certification and qualification work, so Lee estimates Firefox OS in practice will be updates two to four times per year.

Timely updating is an important point to address early -- Firefox OS has only been on the market 11 months -- to avoid some of the problems that afflict Google's Android. Millions of Android users are stuck with old versions of Android because handset makers and carriers don't offer updates. The phones still work, but they mean big hassles for programmers who have to decide whether to support the old software.

Apple CEO Tim Cook dissed Android at the company's Worldwide Developer Conference Monday, saying only 9 percent use the latest KitKat version of the OS compared to 89 percent for iOS 7. ( KitKat usage is now up to 13 percent.)

Updates also are important for security reasons. Firefox OS is a browser-based operating system, meaning that its apps are written with the same Web technologies that are used to make Web pages, and browsers are a top vector for computer attacks these days.

Last, updates bring new features and better performance to users. That's especially important for a new OS like Firefox OS, which still has a lot of rough edges and is missing abilities like copy and paste. Developers constantly update their Web sites and Web apps, and the best way to use them is with an up-to-date browser.

How exactly would the revenue incentive work? In short, Mozilla would agree to share a portion of revenue from its Firefox OS phones with the manufactures, Lee said. He declined to detail specific deals, but described three possible revenue sources to share: money from sales of apps on an app store, money generated by search ads derived from Firefox OS-related search traffic, and money from promotional placement of apps on phone home screens or in an app store.

Another financial tool available is revenue from promotional placement of apps on phone home screens or in an app store.

"We can create an experience we think users are going to love, that's beneficial to them, but at the same time, there's a business aspect. We can share in that," Lee said.

Those are some ideas, but Lee indicated more possibilities exist for making money. "There are a lot of other ways. We have a very customizable flexible platform," Lee said.

Mozilla hopes its approach will bring a Web-style openness to a mobile market that's dominated by closed ecosystems that encompass hardware, operating systems, apps, services, and app stores.

But Mozilla faces immense challenges getting Firefox OS to catch on in a smartphone operating system market dominated by Apple's iOS and Google's Android. In the past first quarter of 2014, Android accounted for 78 percent and iOS 18 percent of the 290 million smartphones shipped, according to analyst firm IDC, and Google and Apple's app stores each have more than a million apps available.

Mozilla also is working to make updates less of a burden. It's possible many apps can be split out so Mozilla itself could issue updates.

"We're looking at decoupling the front-end system apps from OS updates," Lee said. That encompasses apps for things like email, taking and editing photos, calendar scheduling, music listening, and the browser itself. "Updating apps without having to go through an entire OS platform update will reduce the time between updates," Lee said.

Mozilla also is working on update processes to issue "diffs" -- smaller files that package what's changed in an OS, not the entire OS that can be hundreds of megabytes large. "There are improvements that don't necessarily touch the riskier areas," where handset makers would be leery of frequent changes. "Those are being explored. We want to push the mobile landscape forward. We are looking to figure out how we can improve and change the industry."