"We're taking [the Web] to mobile" announced Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona today, talking about the company's Firefox OS vision.
This might come as a surprise to anyone who uses an iPhone, an Android handset, a Windows Phone device, or even a BlackBerry, er, BlackBerry. All of these have good browsers with rich HTML5 support. Isn't the Web already on mobile?
Obviously the answer is yes, but there is nonetheless some truth to Kovacs' hyperbolic statement. More often than not, when developers want to target mobile users, the response is, as Apple would say, "There's an app for that." As such, portable, location-aware Smartphone software—think the Starbucks loyalty card app, or Instagram—tends to work only in an app, or at least work best in an app. Mobile Web sites, in contrast, are either non-existent, or feature deprived.
The result is that the Smartphone application market is effectively controlled by two players: Apple and Google. Kovacs says that this is leaving "many needs [...] unfilled," and that instead of "one or two providers approving content" there should be "many app stores, business many models, many payment mechanisms, many providers, many services."
Firefox OS is designed to run Web apps, developed using standard Web technology. In this way, it avoids the platform lock-in and vendor-dependence that Apple and Android both have, and so enables the kind of fragmented, diverse world that Kovacs envisages.
Mozilla has arguably done this before. Kovacs argues that Mozilla made the Web open. While that too seems initially hyperbolic, it's not too far divorced from reality. In the 2000s, Firefox broke the back of the "Designed for Internet Explorer 6" mindset. Mozilla took on the Internet Explorer monopoly, and actually succeeded in making the Web a place for cross-platform standards rather than single vendor dominance.
That was arguably an easier task, however. Getting existing Web devs to make relatively minor adjustments to ensure their code worked in Firefox as well as Internet Explorer is much simpler than asking app developers to discard their existing tools entirely, and switch to Web development.
In Kovacs' eyes, that's not a problem, as Firefox OS already has an enormous community of developers ready-made, courtesy of ten million Web developers that already exist. Firefox OS may not have any apps available today, in contrast to 700,000 for iOS, but Kovacs has a slogan in response: "There's a Web for that."
Mozilla's position has precedent, but none of it good. The original iPhone, though now consigned to the annals of history, did not support any third-party applications at all. The late Steve Jobs said that the iPhone SDK, such as it was, was the Web: HTML5 in Mobile Safari. After consistent push back from would-be iPhone developers, Apple relented, introduced the SDK and store, and arguably madethird-party applications the central feature of the platform.
Palm tried a similar model with webOS. Although webOS applications were not "the Web" as such (they ran locally, and had access to various APIs not found in a browser), they were nonetheless Web technologies and so, in theory, well-poised to win the hearts and minds of existing Web developers. This never happened. Palm was sold to HP, and now webOS, a once promising, exciting smartphone platform, is faced with the indignity of a future as an operating system for TVs.
Also telling is the fact that Google, a company that is striving to push as much as it can onto the Web, and that even has an operating system that can do nothing but run a Web browser, Chrome OS, produced a smartphone platform that runs plain old apps in the same way as iOS.
Another kind of fragmentation could, however, be the weapon that gives Mozilla the fragmentation itseeks. The smartphone market is currently dominated by iOS and Android. Windows Phone and BlackBerry 10 are minor players fighting for survival, and soon they will be joined by Ubuntu and Firefox OS. There are also unknown wildcards such as Intel and Samsung's Tizen. Add tablets into the mix too, and there's also Windows 8 to consider. Even Chrome OS could become significant in the future.
Even modest success from these platforms—5 percent of the market each, say—would substantially alter the dynamics of the app market. An app developed for iOS or Android alone would sacrifice considerable market reach. Developing applications for four, six, or even more different platforms will drive up costs considerably. Faced with this, it's likely that developers will seek to consolidate somehow, to allow application code to be re-used across the many different platforms.
Systems such as Xamarin and PhoneGap, which still create "real" apps but allow greater code sharing, are one possible answer. But the Web is another answer, and the answer that provides the broadest reach of any platform. While other platforms might be able to co-opt it somewhat—it'd be trivial for the iOS App Store to add links to Web Apps, for example—the openness and flexibility would be inescapable.
Firefox OS's best bet for success, then, could be the success of other platforms. If they thrive, the Web itself thrives, and Firefox OS can find a role. If they don't succeed, however, Mozilla has an enormous mountain to climb, and this time around, it's hard to see how it will ever manage.