Must race Ubuntu, Tizen and Sailfish onto the battlefield
Calling handset makers
Canonical’s effort uses the same OS as Ubuntu for the desktop and uses the Unity interface but lets developers build native applications that run across phones and desktops alike, with only minor UI changes for different device form factors.
All three are trying to stall the runaway success of Google’s Android on smart phones and – increasingly - tablets. Ubuntu even uses the same device drivers as Android, and Canonical claims it will run on entry-level devices with single-core processors and advanced "superphones" based on multi-core ARM and Intel chips. Ubuntu offers an edge in that you will be able to dock your smart phone with a keyboard and monitor and turn it into a general-purpose Linux PC that can run the full range of desktop applications.
To take on Google all four need handset makers.
Mozilla already has ZTE, which has promised Firefox OS phones in Europe this year, while Spanish carrier Telefonica is slated to deliver handsets in Brazil. But Mozilla is alone as Samsung has - not surprisingly - promised Tizen smartphones due this year. That leaves Canonical bereft - for the moment, at least. The Ubuntu shop says the first Ubuntu phones will be seen in the fourth quarter of 2013, but there’s no word of actual phone makers and its website encourages interested parties to sign up. Canonical does have the relationship with PC makers, though – like Dell. Sailfish is also missing handset makers but Jolla has an agreement with Chinese retailer D.Phone, China's equivalent to Carphone Warehouse.
Who can influence the handset makers, though? That'll be the devs, by refining things such as the Linux kernel, the phones' HTML5 experience, and by providing the number of apps considered necessary to win consumers.
For this purpose, Eich is a legend who might galvanize devs with more success than – say – a faceless corporation like a Samsung.
That was when Microsoft was rolling out Internet Explorer against Netscape, having – in what became something of a habit – been caught sleeping on the job. It ignored the early web as it rolled out Windows 95, believing that the end point of history was a client and server talking over a LAN and WAN.
In the end, Netscape was defeated by industry maneuvering. The open language that should have proved NetScape's life blood proved an irrelevance as Microsoft used its existing relationship with PC makers to prevent the shipping of machines loaded with a rival's browser.
The phone's the thing
In an interview last year, Mozilla Europe president Tristan Nitot told me that mobility is the key for the web and also for Mozilla. He called it "scary" that tech companies in far off Silicon Valley can control the powerful computer in your pocket that's called a smart phone - instead of you, the user.
Eich's rise suggests Mozilla has recognized that Firefox OS needs to be watertight to win the war against Apple and Google. It needs to be buttoned down on performance, able to run on more chips besides just ARM and open to a broader number of form factors right up to the TV. Also, with the Firefox Marketplace open, Mozilla must attract top application author talent.
Time will tell - and it'll tell very quickly - whether the technical genius and developer cred of Eich is sufficient to stop Firefox OS being ground down into irrelevance by its open-source peers and help Mozilla win the war of the open-web on mobile. ®