Crazy Geckos: Nitot on Mozilla's post-Firefox mobile crusade
Open-source handset versus Android and Apple
First came the BlackBerry, bringing the smartphones for suits perfected by RIM to consumers. Next came the iPhone, which quickly hoovered up 23 per cent of the market. But the iPhone came at a price: the freedom of users and coders. It is tightly controlled by Apple, as Adobe quickly found to its cost with Flash.
Next up was Android. In just four years, Android exploited consumers' desire to poke and stroke their phones to become the world's most popular smartphone OS – burying the iPhone – with 59 per cent of the market.
Android had a plus: freedom of choice for both coder and consumer thanks to an open-source code base.
Honeycomb changed things: the Android code was yanked back inside the Googleplex as Mountain View asserted control over builds and contributions.
Since Honeycomb, contributions have only been possible after release – producing a kind of "tah-dah!" open source: here’s the code we made earlier.
But that is no longer a problem for coders; now that Google owns a mobile handset business it's a problem for handset-makers. This is because Google not only has the inside track on what goes into future versions of Android, it also has the handset business, so it can also push out phones ahead of partners like the successful Samsung.
Nitot: web safe on the desktop
Meanwhile, Android has fragmented. Becoming big had a price, as it has been stretched and bent to fit devices with a fiendish variety of screens, chips, cameras and networking. This makes it very hard for developers to build one version of their app that runs everywhere.
This is exactly what happened to Java on handsets, which paved the way for Apple's iPhone and... well, you can see where this is headed.
If only there were a smartphone operating system choice which was open source, not tied to one single commercial operation and which used web technologies already established, rather than tailored to the unique needs of the phone.
Now, there is just such as OS – or at least the promise of one – and it comes from the Mozilla Foundation. Mozilla earlier this year unveiled Boot to Gecko (B2G), a Linux-based operating system that runs HTML5 web apps using the Gecko open-source layout engine used in Firefox, which opens up the phone's onboard systems such as the accelerometer or dialer to the web. It doesn't keep them in reserve for use by native apps or force them through some middle-man software code like Phonegap or Appcelerator’s Titanium. B2G's Linux drivers allow HTML5 code to talk directly to the phone's dialer and accelerometer. Currently B2G runs on Qualcomm ARM and Samsung Galaxy SII and the Nexus. Handset makes and carriers get to customise the interface, too.
Mozilla Europe president Tristan Nitot is bullish about the concept. “Mobility is the key for the web but also for Mozilla,” Nitot told us in an a recent interview at Mozilla's offices in London.
It is key for the web because mobility is the next battleground for openness and innovation on the web. And it's key for Mozilla because it is an ideology committed to a free and open internet, where developers and consumers have choices.
I’d argue, however, that B2G is key to Mozilla for another very important reason: Mozilla needs to get beyond Firefox, which made the group's name and which now seems to have been eclipsed by Google’s Chrome in the battle to challenge Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.
Mozilla has other projects such as Thunderbird and SeaMonkey also on the go, but it’s Firefox that saw Mozilla cross the chasm of recognition to become a real force online, with articles abounding on how Mozilla is the "alternative" to Microsoft.
Nitot told me that he – and Mozilla – see mobility as history repeating itself. presenting an opportunity to liberate people from the dominant giants and deliver something that shakes up the status quo, forcing incumbents to change and innovate. When Mozilla released Firefox in November 2004, it re-energised an ossified browser market that had been dominated by Internet Explorer and it came as Microsoft declared grandly that no more could be done on browser development and that IE would in future be subsumed into Windows. Apparently, a browser that was not standards-compatible and forced the world to view the web though Microsoft's eyes was the pinnacle of evolution. Five years on, Firefox was growing at 40 per cent per year, adding more than 20 million active users as IE began to lose its grip as number one.
“As a citizen of the internet it is extremely scary in that I bought this device and I want to run the software I want. I don’t understand why somebody in beautiful California can tell me what I can and can’t run on this device.” – Mozilla Europe President Tristan Nitot
“On the desktop the web is here to stay; the picture of browsers is healthy,” Nitot said. Mobility is a game in play. “Mobility is a very different story because you have in your pocket a device that’s a computer and you have no control over it. Whether you turn it on or off, the operating system... you don’t know how it’s done [and] depending on the brand you cannot run certain types of applications because the company that controls the app store doesn’t let you run them.
“As a citizen of the internet it is extremely scary in that I bought this device and I want to run the software I want. I don’t understand why somebody in beautiful California can tell me what I can and can’t run on this device.”
All very idealistic, but there are hurdles.
Google's Android is the poster child for Linux on mobile but the phone biz is a cruel and hard place for open source. There are rules you must obey; ignore them and you get crushed or ignored into oblivion.
Obey the rules
Google’s first foray into Android was shot down by the industry: it sold its first Nexus handset direct, cutting out the middleman and upsetting the telcos with which it was now competing. Google was soon forced to end direct sales. Remember the Neo FreeRunner in 2008? It was an open-source and Linux effort developed by the OpenMoko project under a GPL licence and was supposed to be manufactured by First International Computer. It was an idealist's dream, but apart from a few open-source diehards at the odd tech show nobody uses it and FIC doesn’t seem to now be selling FreeRunner phones.
Mozilla is obeying the first rule of mobile: work with the telco big boys.
Chris Heilmann, principal evangelist at Mozilla for HTML5 and open web, told The Reg: “We don’t sell the phone, we partner with those who know how to get the phone into people’s hands. The main idea of B2G is it’s so lightweight with only a Linux core with Firefox on top. For telcos it will be interesting to put them into markets where people can’t afford smartphones. In the past every open-source phone tried to interrupt the US, European market – or Finnish market, in Neo’s case.”
Cut the Rope: Microsoft demonstrates its conversion to HTML5
Mozilla doesn’t want you hacking your phone with B2G and upsetting the carriers, either. Heilmann warns that installing B2G on a phone today will break your phone and erase the existing copy of Android. Jailbreaking is not Mozilla’s chosen path. “It’s not made for that. We want to partner with people who know how to get phones out there and convince them HTML5 is the opportunity of the future rather than saying install it on your phone and show off because it’s cool,” Heilmann says.
Another challenge is whether B2G can match the iPhone or Android phones on performance. The rule on consumer devices is hard: get it right first time or go home. B2G handsets can’t afford inferior performance.
Hardware acceleration helps prolong battery life, too. Graphics performance is delivered using a graphics processor rather than the phone’s CPU, which would drain the battery and mean the phone would need a lot of re-charging.
The payoff for developers on WebGL is that it’s open, and thus takes the hard work out of writing HTML5 apps for different devices. “We have an even starting ground rather than having to find out what browser does what in the DOM (document object model),” Heilmann said.
The technology and the philosophy sound simple, but politics isn't and the telco business is very political. Apple and Google have billions in the bank to fund R&D and buy industry influence. Mozilla, by contrast, is a non-profit.
Mozilla says it can exert influence and lead by example. However, I think Mozilla’s idealism will have to suit the self interest of partners, who will certainly find a way to help B2G suit their commercial goals.
On leadership, Mozilla believes its track record speaks for itself: with Firefox having forced Microsoft to re-start IE development and, recently, getting Google, Microsoft and others to follow its lead on Do-Not-Track in the browser. The Do-Not-Track project stops websites using your browser’s history to track you around the web and keep serving you ads. Microsoft and Google have a foot each in the ads camp, running large ad-serving networks and partnering with ad-serving companies – meaning they were reluctant to back the kind of DNT that Mozilla introduced in Firefox 4 last year.
Power of a browser
Much of Mozilla’s ability to exert influence has come from Firefox; however, that influence must be in question now the baton of growth has passed to Google’s Chrome, which launched in 2008 and which now, according to some analysts, takes up 32 per cent of the market and has pushed IER out of the way to gain thenumber one spot. Firefox is stuck on around a quarter of the web and isn't growing.
Doesn’t this reduce Mozilla’s leverage on mobile?
Nitot expects growth to resume with the rapid release cycles introduced last year for Firefox and a re-architecting that reduced memory consumption to help Firefox lose its memory hog. “It’s not perfect but we are cranking new stuff and people see that arriving on their desktops and it takes time for them to change their minds,” Nitot says.
Adobe's Flash was Jobs' first iPhone victim
Nitot says: “If we have a market share that’s big enough to be significant and put pressure on the competition – that’s what I want. If we are big enough to put pressure on the others and have a good, healthy web, it’s all right,” he says. “Even a third place wouldn’t be terrible.”
On the subject of going up against moneybags Google and Apple, Mozilla is in a tricky – some might argue a “compromised” – position. Google is Mozilla’s biggest financial backer, providing at least 86 per cent of its revenue: $300m, based on a 2010 financial statement. The pair renewed a deal last year that made Google the default search provider to Firefox. The deal sees Mozilla get a slice of search-ads related revenue from the Chocolate Factory.
Mozilla insists its search partner doesn’t influence how it builds software. And, certainly, there have been ruptions between the pair. For example, when Google’s former chief executive Eric Schmidt’s lip was at its famous unbuttoned best in 2009, when he said that only people with "something to hide" wanted anonymity and privacy on the web. Soon after that, one of Mozilla's top developers started advising Firefox users to use Microsoft’s Bing.
But it’s obviously unhealthy to rely on one single source of income or a big financier. Especially if it is the web's largest ads engine. Especially not when your new phone undermines both the ads giant's handset and app store – using HTML5, B2G won’t swallow apps from Google’s Android marketplace. Instead, the idea is that you consume ordinary HTML5 apps that run in existing browsers. Even apps from Microsoft, such as the HTJL5 re-write of Cut the Rope that Redmond oversaw simply to prove the HTML5 credentials of IE9.
Nitot admits to ongoing discussions about finding sources of fresh funding but told me he has nothing new to announce. Meantime, there’s no actual plan in place about how to make any money off B2G should actually follow the Firefox wave and take off. This really is the classic open-source school of "build it and they will come". Market now, monetise later.
According to Nitot, this is nothing new and a solution will present itself: he reminds me that he started Mozilla Europe nearly a decade ago ago from his apartment in Paris working with colleagues without getting paid. “As we enter a very different market with B2G there are things in to be invented there – but I don’t know what, to be very candid.
“I started Mozilla Europe nine years ago and for first six months I was scratching my head on how I could make money and I couldn’t find a natural answer. I tried training, fees, custom builds and one day I woke up and realized ‘I’m wasting my time with that. Let’s make a good product and convince millions of people to use Firefox and the rest will follow’.
“With B2G if we have really good product - and it’s a strong focus in the Mozilla culture to have something that’s delightful to use - the rest will follow.”
Apple's Steve Jobs saw the money and implemented restrictions for the iPhone which he didn’t, and that Apple now can’t, apply retrospectively to the Mac.
If B2G is the new Firefox, then Mozilla and the open web stand a chance on mobile. Ideals are a luxury in the fast-paced world of money and power: the iPhone has only been with us since 2007 yet has 23 per cent of the smartphone market. Android booted in 2008 and has 59 per cent. Samsung is top of the Android pile. Last year, devices outsold PCs for the first time, generating billions of dollars for their makers and owners.
The other factor that might help B2G is the commercial interests of carriers and handset makers. An open alternative such as BSG would suit companies, letting them deliver branded versions of phones tailored with services they want. Importantly, it could overcome one of the biggest stumbling blocks for such companies: the app store. Sure we can all throw them up, but populating them is another proposition entirely. Using a model that uses pre-existing HTML apps could prove one way around this.
B2G has early support. Spanish carrier Telefonica plans to deliver B2G handsets in Brazil this year. Nitot says Telefonica is interested because B2G lets it deliver a smartphone at feature-phone prices.
The twist is, carriers and handset makers actually do crave the kind of power and control enjoyed by Apple with a closed market and development model. Apple's Steve Jobs saw the money and implemented restrictions for the iPhone which he didn’t, and that Apple now can’t, apply retrospectively to the Mac.
Mozilla will have to hope idealism wins out, and feeds into a belief that a web that's open to all pays better than a web that locks you in.
“When we launched Firefox I had a colleague of mine saying to the press here in the UK we’d be at 10 per cent market share by the middle of next year, I wanted to stop him. I wanted to say it’s crazy, but we did. Now we are doing Boot to Gecko. These are crazy challenges, but it’s in the nature of Mozilla to do crazy things that nobody thinks we would succeed at,” Nitot says. ®