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Telefonica signs up for Mozilla's mobile Web OS

The Firefox developer has a serious partner to bring its browser-based mobile OS to market, and Qualcomm is helping with hardware.

Mozilla CTO and JavaScript founder Brendan Eich
Mozilla CTO and JavaScript founder Brendan Eich
Stephen Shankland

BARCELONA, Spain--Mozilla took a big first step in making something real out of B2G, its browser-based mobile operating system, by signing on mobile network operator Telefonica as a partner.

In addition, the Firefox maker discussed another step, a close relationship with mobile processor maker Qualcomm to create the hardware for the first phones, expected to launch later in 2012.

Those are two very important steps. But they're only one of dozens that it must take to create an operating system competitive with Apple's iOS and Google's Android, much less one that fulfills Mozilla's grander ambition. The nonprofit organization wants to break down the barriers that make it hard for people to switch among iOS, Android, Amazon, and other technology realms.

A big part of the B2G sales pitch is price. With component cost of only about $50, Mozilla can tap into "the opportunity to convert a large part of the world from [lower-end] feature phones to smartphones," Brendan Eich, Mozilla's chief technology officer and the initial inventor of the JavaScript programming language that's universal on the Web, said in an interview.

"A lot of people can afford the kind of phone we're building," Eich said. "These are not fat, high-end smartphones," but he believes the Web apps will run fast on lower-end hardware so manufacturers won't have to spend so much to achieve good performance.

Cost appeal
That rationale apparently struck a chord at Telefonica. Here's the official statement from Carlos Domingo, Telefonica Digital's director of product development and innovation:

Telefonica's objective is to drive HTML5 adoption across the industry. For the first time the capabilities of HTML5 and the open Web have been fully leveraged to create an entirely new mobile platform. From our experience in Latin America we know that a huge part of the market is not being catered for by current smartphones. With new open Web devices we will be able to offer a smartphone experience at the right price point for these customers.

As expected, Mozilla announced the B2G partners here at the Mobile World Congress.

B2G stands for Boot to Gecko; Gecko is the engine that renders Web pages and runs Web apps in Firefox. Under the covers, B2G includes a version of Linux--a variation of the open-sourcedd Android software--but it's invisible to programmers. They write Web apps using Web technology such as HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), JavaScript, and WebGL.

Ultimately, Eich believes that programmer pressure will coax Apple and Google to advance their Web foundation, too. And that will mean programmers have even more incentive to build Web apps that span many devices, not just native apps that work on one ecosystem or another.

Uphill battle
The smartphone world needs a new mobile operating system like it needs a hole in its head. The troubles of Research in Motion's BlackBerry OS, the fizzling of HP's WebOS, and Microsoft's extraordinarily expensive push behind Windows Phone shows that it's not easy catching up to the two dominant operating systems.

Jonathan Nightingale, Mozilla's director of Firefox engineering
Jonathan Nightingale, Mozilla's director of Firefox engineering Stephen Shankland/CNET

Mozilla, though, has a leg up because of its Web-app focus. Many native iOS and Android apps these days actually use a browser engine to render their user interfaces, and those will be an easy fit for B2G phones.

"We take apps already being built for mobile devices and desktops, and let them run with a little bit of extra goodness on your phone," Eich said.

That extra goodness takes the form of a host of interfaces Mozilla is working on with World Wide Web Consortium's Device API group. Mozilla wants everything standardized so that Apple or Google could build Boot to WebKit--the browser engine they use--and Microsoft could build Boot to Trident, Eich said.

Hardware interfaces
Hardware interfaces to let browser apps handle lower-level hardware are in different states of maturity. "NFC [near-field communications, used for tap-to-pay systems] is on our agenda, but it's farther out. It's not yet a hot item. But definitely telephony, controlling the camera, and vibration" are important areas now. Samsung, another WebKit user, put its weight behind the interface for telling the phone to vibrate, Eich said. "Geolocation and accelerometer support [for determining a phone's position and location] are there. Gyro and compass support is part of our plan. Bluetooth and USB is, even."

To help with software sales and distribution, Mozilla is answering the Apple App Store and Android Market with the Mozilla Marketplace--an app store that can integrate with others app stores by exchanging digital receipts. Going hand in hand is an identity system; the two together will ensure that software bought at one app store won't have to be re-purchased at another.

The B2G components include Gecko in the middle, the Gonk Linux layer hidden beneath, and the Gaia user interface at the top for things like the traditional grid of icons to launch apps. Gaia is basically just a Web page, and it's easily substituted if a company wants to present a different look.

Indeed, that's exactly what Telefonica is doing with called Open Web Device (OWD), Eich said. The B2G approach makes it easier for companies to build a consistent interface across multiple devices, he said.

Of course, that variety means some potential for confusion among customers. And programmers--already saddled with multiple native OSes and varying degrees of fragmentation within each--will have yet another potential set of headaches.

With B2G, Mozilla hopes to increase the clout and capability of Web apps. That would to lead to a mobile world where it doesn't matter so much if you're using an iOS, Android, or other device, much as today it doesn't matter much if you're using a browser on Windows, Linux, or Mac OS X.

It's an ideal the organization hopes customers will appreciate. But Mozilla knows it has to build something compelling on its own, just like Firefox caught on because of its practical merits more than its principled stance.

"The majority use Firefox because it's an excellent browser that does what they want it to do," said Jonathan Nightingale, director of Firefox Engineering. With B2G, "the way we take it to market is by having a compelling service people want to use."