Firefox first demoed its Linux-based Firefox OS last year. Now, just over a year later, it has networks and manufacturers on board. Of course, it’s hard to imagine another mobile OS in the iOS and Android-dominated marketplace. After all, many other attempts at a mobile OS have not been that successful. But Firefox’s VP of engineering, Jonathan Nightingale, believes Firefox will be different, and says there’s room for another OS alongside Android and iOS, especially one that can harness the power of the open Web with ready-made apps that are already out there.
Crucially, Firefox OS runs on low-powered devices for emerging markets and offers an intriguing, low-cost entry point to a market dominated by premium smartphones. Could Firefox OS be the missing link in getting the entire world in to the smartphone market? We spoke to Jonathan Nightingale to learn more.
Richard Melville: Firefox OS debuted last year – what’s changed this time around?
Jonathan Nightingale: Last year, we came to Mobile World Congress and made a big announcement and said, "Hey, we’re gonna get into the smartphone OS trade." Mostly what we were doing was talking about vision. We thought it could work and this was where we thought there was an opportunity. This year, we get to prove it and come back with devices. We have 18 operators and real manufacturers now. Last year, our booth was tiny because we didn’t know how much interest there would be so this year we got a much bigger booth and it’s still packed to the gills.
RM: So you feel confident in Firefox OS going forward?
JN: The proof will be in whether we get these things to market and consumers actually enjoy using them and developers flock to it. That would be great but that’s long term. If we have to read tea leaves, there’s a lot of positive signs here.
RM: Do you think there’s a need for a new mobile OS?
JN: Yeah, and I feel pretty good about the state of the Firefox brand. That brand is one of our biggest assets. Not just because it’s a nice picture but because 20 to 30 percent of the worldwide market on desktops trust us; they use Firefox to get on to the Web. We think they understand we’re about user privacy, we care a lot about security. We’re not in this to cash our users in, we’re in this to build something that acts as their agent.
As for the state of the market, can we tolerate more competition that the duopoly we’ve got? I think we can, but keep in mind that our goal here is to push hard. We’re going to work with our partners to get this thing into market; we’re going to watch very carefully; we’re going to listen very carefully to what people respond to. It’s not our goal to get to 100 percent market share – if we get to 10 percent, 20 percent, 50 percent, we’ll have big parties, I promise.
RM: You feel confident because the online mobile market is big and growing?
JN: Our CEO talks about how we’re going to have 2 billion people joining the Web for the first time and we’ve got about 2 billion on the Web now, so the 2 billion coming in are going to look really different. A lot of people are asking whether Firefox OS is designed for the emerging market and whether that’s our segment. Certainly, that’s an important place for us to be. We’re nonprofit, we’re mission-driven, so we look at it and think, if those people are coming online, they’re not going to be doing it on a $700 smartphone. We have a real opportunity to introduce something there.
Our technology platform is something we’ve been building on and improving for a decade and we’ve got some performance characteristics and stuff that lets us run on much more accessible hardware, certainly compared to iPhone.
RM: Low-powered devices running the OS look pretty impressive …
JN: We’re really proud of the performance enhancements we’ve made to allow it to run on that class of hardware. When you interact with the current phones, you find little bugs and stuff because it’s still early software and the engineer in me is always looking at those and thinking about where we could make a little fix. These are pre-commercial devices but when I pick one up my overwhelming feeling is that the Web can do this.
RM: Google would perhaps say otherwise?
JN: Five years ago, you saw the birth of iOS and Android but the Web couldn’t do it and Google is still going out there, telling that story. They say you need native applications to have rich capability. Five years ago that was true; now that feels really outdated. Holding any of these Firefox OS phones is proof of that. (Read more about native applications in Native App or Mobile Web App?)
RM: Do you think there will be more OS competitors in that space, like Facebook?
JN: I hope so. There’s certainly a lot of people talking about it. A lot of them are hamstrung in that they’re trying to run the same play book that worked for Apple and Google. I don’t think you can do that in 2013. They’ve got smart people there for sure but I think it was hard enough for Google to say to a world of iPhone developers, "Hey, you need to build another custom version of your app for Android." They were able to do it, they got great distribution partners and worldwide ubiquity, happy for them.
Someone else running that play again, saying you need to do a third platform, a fourth platform, I think that’s a really hard sell. I think it ignores a really key advantage too. There are 200,000 iOS developers, 600,000 Android developers, but there are 8 million Web developers out there. If you’re not betting on HTML5, you’re making a mistake. When I look at the other new entrants, it’s not surprising to me that I see a lot of them talking about HTML5, but I also see them trying to pitch their own proprietary system, like BlackBerry saying they support HTML5 apps or BlackBerry apps. That really surprises me – you’re not going to win that game on Google’s terms. You’ve got to find a way to do something different. (Read more about HTML5 in HTML 5: The Future Web.)
RM: Consumers won’t buy that either?
JN: If developers are getting fatigued, my sense is that this looks very much like 1996. We had a Windows PC, we had a Mac, you paid for your software and if you switched platforms, you had to throw it all in the garbage. People stopped tolerating that as soon as the Web became capable of delivering the services they wanted. If you’re running a start-up now, either in Silicon Valley or Bangalore, you’re not saying, "Hey, come download my client software." That’s not how Facebook became popular, by asking people to download a Windows app.
Everyone knows that the way you distribute software to everyone is to use Web-based technologies. But in smartphone world, because it’s a relatively new market segment, we’re back in 1996 again and 1997 is just around the corner.
RM: Do you think there’s a future for Windows Phone and BlackBerry devices? Isn’t it like game console manufacturers having to pay developers to develop for them?
JN: I think software is really hard and it’s made harder if you’re trying to do too many things at once. It’s great to hear them talking about HTML5 and capturing the innovating power of the Web – love it – but if they’re spending a lot of their development time supporting these other eco-systems and marketing to developers really heavily, they’re not focused on the thing that’s going to win. I don’t see it playing out well for those guys. I’m sure we’ll see some marquee apps on their platform but all those apps probably have websites. When Mark Zuckerbeg was talking last year about moving his HTML 5 app on iPhone to a native app, a lot of people said HTML 5 was dead. But if you read his post, he was really careful about it. He said HTML5 is the future. The Web view that I have on an iPhone today is really underpowered compared to the other HTML5 implementations out there. The thing that he said that really caught my attention is if you add up all of the app traffic together, it pales in comparison to people visiting Facebook via the Web at m.Facebook.com.
RM: So what’s the small, easy strategy for Firefox OS?
JN: For us the strategy is really clear: Go where the developers are, go where the users are. The thing that helps us is that the apps are already out there. We’re going to create a marketplace, we’re going to curate it, it’s already in developer preview. We’re going to offer the nice things about the Apple App store and Google Play store in terms of discovery, featured apps, and we’re going to do human reviews, not just automated reviews because we thing that keeps the quality bar high.