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Mozilla and Baidu join battle for the new cloud OS

Stripping the Gecko

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Comment The battle for the conventional “fat‟ mobile OS is won and lost. But the fight to control the user interface to the cloud is wide open, and with Apple and Microsoft on the back foot, a Linux-based winner looks logical. Google has pitched Chrome OS, Hewlett-Packard has webOS and Intel has MeeGo. Now enter Mozilla, and Chinese search engine Baidu.

In all cases, this is not about building a native software platform and controlling the APIs and tools that define a mobile experience. Instead, it is about devices that are mainly used to access web apps and data stored in the cloud – which means a minimalist operating system just for vital functions.

There seems little scope in such a pared-down technology for any firm to gain significant power, but on top of that mini-OS will evolve the new interface to the cloud. In theory that just requires an efficient browser and HTML5 – but in reality, all the web players will want to differentiate the experience, putting new functionality and their own stamp upon it to keep themselves at the forefront of the users' minds.

Mozilla enters OS game

So some HTML5 browsers will be more equal than others, and in that particular race, the companies which have already helped define the web experience must have a headstart – hence Google with Chrome OS and now Mozilla. Companies which willingly work within others' browsers and OSs will nevertheless aim to create a distinctive experience on the mobile cloud device as they have on the PC – notably Amazon, which could prove a powerful kingmaker for one of the candidates, possibly webOS.

Enter the Mozilla Foundation, which like HP, Intel and Microsoft has largely failed to translate its PC success to the mobile world. The open source organization has launched a new project to create a mobile operating system geared to web services and the cloud. The project is called Boot to Gecko (B2G) and boasts that it will create a “complete standalone operating system for the open web”, harnessing the Gecko rendering engine. Developers working on the initiative wrote on a wiki page: "We want to ... find the gaps that keep web developers from being able to build apps that are, in every way, the equals of native apps built for the iPhone, Android and WP7.”

These thoughts echo those of Google when it launched its own browser-as-OS, based on Chrome. So far, this has appeared on netbook-style devices targeted mainly at being enterprise thin clients, but the search giant hopes to push it into a wide range of web appliances in future, indeed into any gadget with a browser UI for accessing web services and cloud content. Mozilla, like HP with webOS, will aim to do the same, making up for its low profile in smartphones.

Clearly, in this arena, anyone with a well used browser has a headstart. Microsoft IE/Bing and Apple Safari could be harnessed in future, but these vendors have a strong interest in preserving the native app for as long as possible. That leaves opportunities for Firefox and potentially others like Opera, while Chinese search engine Baidu is also said to have a similar project underway. Also like Google, Mozilla will draw on Firefox for its OS, but will not restrict its apps environment to its own browser. "We aren't trying to have these native-grade apps just run on Firefox, we're trying to have them run on the web," the developers added.

The element they lack is the actual OS kernel. For a pure cloud platform, only a stripped-down Linux system is required, as seen in Chrome OS and in Intel's MeeGo (which is sufficiently minimalist to be used as a low-overhead secondary OS by SplashTop). Perhaps surprisingly, Mozilla intends to draw on Android, which is also Linux-based but far fatter, and which has drifted so far from mainstream Linux as to be classified a “fork‟. However, using Android‟s basic kernel and drivers would be a useful short cut for Mozilla. According to IDG, one of the lead developers on the project, Mike Shaver, said: "We intend to use as little of Android as possible”, but added that the kernel provided a starting point that can already boot.

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