Mozilla and Baidu join battle for the new cloud OS
Stripping the Gecko
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.
In contrast with Google, the open source foundation will release sourcecode to the community in real time, rather than in a staggered process favoring selected partners. Mozilla will also work through standards groups where relevant.
Baidu chases Google, Alibaba apes Amazon
Google's Achilles' heel as it pushes its cloud vision will be China, where it has faced political storms and powerful rivals. So it is no surprise that local search giant Baidu is mirroring its strategy. It has already released a beta version of its own browser, which will be built around its search box and will later evolve into a fully fledged web operating system to compete with Chrome. Like Google, it gets most of its revenue from search advertising and aims to put the services that drive it – the search box itself, location awareness and so on – at the heart of the whole mobile interface.
For now, Baidu Browser looks similar in layout to Chrome, but its home page features instant links to apps and social networks, and there is a “Treasure Vault‟ from which users can select further links, apps or pieces of content to place on the homescreen. This is reminiscent of the Chrome Web Store which accompanies Google's OS, and while the platform is initially geared to PCs and netbooks, mobile versions will appear soon.
Also in China, Alibaba Group plans to unveil its Cloud OS later this week. Unlike Baidu, this will be specifically designed for mobile devices, and the ecommerce major will even launch its ownbranded handsets to kickstart the platform.
If Baidu's strategy has clearly borrowed from Google's, Alibaba's role model must be Amazon. The US firm has shown how creating a distinctive and usable experience can boost physical and digital sales online, and create a huge brand, and its Chinese counterpart wants to make similar progress. The Chinese company, though, has moved earlier towards the next logical step – controlling not just the web site and shopping processes, but the underlying platform too.
Amazon has done this in a specific market with Kindle, which has its own devices, store and apps as well as the web site, but for other digital activities it has relied on Windows and Android. For the next generation cloud devices and services, it is rumored to be seeking greater control, either by heavily adapting Android or licensing webOS (it already has its own Android app store in competition with Googles's).
A webOS alliance, hinted at by former Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein recently, would give Amazon a system in which it would be the dominant licensee and therefore have huge influence, without having to carry out development itself. It would also be more suited to embedded web appliances than Android, as Google itself has recognized. And Amazon has been a pioneer of the embedded model with Kindle – indeed, Todd Bradley, EVP of HP's personal systems group, recently said that looking at the model underpinning Kindle had been one reason why HP decided to purchase webOS and create an internet OS strategy of its own. "Kindle was a big driver for us to look at webOS," he told the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference.
Like Amazon, Alibaba's primary motivation will be to increase sales of content and goods, rather than to become a mobile hardware or software vendor in its own right. It aims to expand its ecommerce activities into cloud content and web services, and to encourage handset makers to include its OS in their products to offer their customers simplified access – rather like “Facebook phones” in the west. Alibaba owns many web companies, whose services could be boosted by a new, user friendly interface. Among them is China's largest online retailer, Taobao, which in 2009 launched its own-branded handset range, with Amazon-style ease of use for ecommerce and mobile content transactions. ®