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Does Firefox have a mobile future?

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Firefox may be losing marketshare to Chrome, but the Mozilla Foundation has laid out an ambitious roadmap for 2012. It includes not only major new features and capabilities for its Firefox browser, but solutions for online identity management and a full-fledged marketplace for cross-platform Web apps to rival offerings from Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and others.

However, while Mozilla is perhaps singlehandedly responsible for breaking Internet Explorer’s stranglehold on the desktop browser market, the Internet world is increasingly focused on mobile — and Mozilla has yet to make a strong transition to mobile devices.

Can Firefox and Mozilla survive in a world where mobile users are almost all locked into app and software ecosystems — and Mozilla is all but locked out?

Why Mozilla’s desktop footprint hasn’t carried over to mobile

Mozilla’s Firefox has waged a lengthy — and successful — battle against the market dominance of Microsoft Internet Explorer on the desktop. Internet Explorer once accounted for over 90 percent of all browsing around the world, a feat it accomplished after successfully vanquishing one-time browser leader Netscape. Mozilla was birthed from the ashes of Netscape, and over years of pressing for open standards and pushing for improved performance, security, and features, Mozilla arguably won that battle, even if IE is still the dominant browser in the world (Net Applications has all versions of IE currently accounting for about 53 percent of the desktop market). More recently, Google’s Chrome has become a major force in the browser market, essentially neck-and-neck with Firefox for the not-using-Internet-Explorer crowd.

firefox mobileHowever, in the mobile world, the landscape is very different. The success of Apple’s iOS on iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches makes Safari the dominant mobile browser: According to Net Applications, it has a 55 percent share of the mobile browser market. Mozilla and Firefox are almost absent, while Opera mini and the default Android browser each account for about one fifth of mobile browsing. After that, shares fall into the single digits for Symbian and BlackBerry. Firefox barely registers: According to Net Applications, it claims just 0.02 percent of the mobile browser market.

Firefox’s challenges in the mobile arena are formidable. For instance, Apple’s development restrictions for iOS mean browsers have to use iOS’s built-in WebKit rendering engine, and that rules out a port of Firefox’s Gecko rendering engine for iOS. To be sure, Mozilla could produce an iOS browser called Firefox built on WebKit, but doing so would leave most of Mozilla’s core technology behind. While a WebKit-based Firefox could perhaps offer a different mobile browsing experience than Safari, it likely would never be able to keep up with Mobile Safari because Apple has a history of keeping some WebKit optimizations to itself.

If Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform develops market traction, it could be an opportunity for third-party browsers, except that Microsoft restricts third-party app development to XAML and its own Silverlight platform. It might be possible to build a browser with those technologies, but (again) Mozilla would be leaving its Gecko engine behind, re-inventing the wheel, and starting off at an incredible disadvantage compared to native apps.

Firefox’s first moves into mobile browsing were for MeeGo, an open-source mobile operating system being developed jointly by Nokia and Intel. Unfortunately for Mozilla, Nokia threw MeeGo to the wolves when it fully embraced Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform. Although the MeeGo project has been rolled into Tizen (which has recently been augmented by Samsung’s Bada), both are still a long way from fully-baked, let alone shipping on handsets or making a mark on the market. By the time Tizen starts hitting the streets, it’ll probably even have competition from webOS, which should be fully open-sourced by September 2012.

That pretty much leaves Android — and, to be sure, Firefox is available for Android. Although the degree to which Google’s mobile OS is “free” and “open” won’t likely be settled for some time (in or out of court), the Android platform does offer the low-level access Mozilla needs to bring its browsing technology to mobile devices. But Firefox for Android faces some very real challenges. For one thing, it’s performance is distinctly subpar compared to Android’s native browser. Mozilla promises it’s working fast on a rewrite to bring Firefox for Android up to speed, in part by tapping native Android interface elements. But that will lock Firefox for Android out of a lot of existing Firefox add-ons. And it’s not like Firefox is the only alternative browser for Android. Google not only packs a default WebKit browser into Android, it just launched its own version of Google Chrome for Android, to generally positive reception. If any company has a leg up on making a browser for Android, it’s Google.

Boot to Gecko

So where do Mozilla’s mobile hopes lie? Since Mozilla is effectively locked out of every mobile platform but Android (and perhaps Tizen, one day), Mozilla is hoping to do an end-run around the mobile OS conundrum with Boot to Gecko, a fully Web-based mobile operating system for tablets and smartphones. Yes, another mobile operating system. The idea behind Boot to Gecko is to provide an OS built entirely on HTML5, Javascript, and CSS. Everything on screen would essentially be a Web app, and those Web apps would essentially be native-optimized apps on Boot to Gecko. Although built on a basic foundation from Android, Boot to Gecko would offer no proprietary layers, no distinction between Web apps and native apps. Boot to Gecko will support a privilege model that puts users in control of their data and personal information — in part, that would leverage Mozilla’s BrowserID framework, which enables users to log into Web sites (and go back again) via any email address they like.

Palm Pre 3If Boot to Gecko sounds a bit like Palm-then-HP’s killed-then-open-sourced webOS, you’re right. Much of the idea behind webOS was to build a mobile operating system using purely Web-based technologies on a WebKit engine. Maybe the world isn’t ready for a mobile operating system based fully on Web technologies: One former Palm executive has laid the failure of webOS squarely at the feet of WebKit — a claim that seems a little preposterous since Apple and Google have had solid successes with the same technology, but it’s important to remember Palm tried to get there first. Boot to Gecko would use Mozilla’s Gecko rather than WebKit, but unlike webOS, will apparently eschew native apps. (So did the original iPhone, if anyone remembers.)

Given that modern mobile hardware has considerably more horsepower than the original iPhone (or Palm’s first webOS devices), it’s conceivable a Gecko-based mobile operating system could fly where webOS has (so far) failed. However, the problem might be timing: Mozilla B2G roadmap reveals the organization isn’t expecting to have a demo of Boot to Gecko up and running until this quarter, with “productization” starting in the second quarter. Even if Mozilla gives birth to a fully-formed Boot to Gecko OS by the third quarter of 2012, it then faces an uphill battle to adoption. Mozilla has to pursue deals with handset makers, who by that point, will be able to choose not just Windows Phone and Android but perhaps webOS and Tizen too, or try to convince the technologically savvy to install B2G on Android handsets with unlocked bootloaders. That may appeal to developer-types, but not to mainstream mobile users.

A market for Web apps

Realizing its opportunities to bring Firefox to to the mobile world are perhaps less-than-ideal, Mozilla has outlined another zag-rather-than-zig strategy: a marketplace for cross-platform Web apps. The idea sticks to the core of Mozilla’s fundamental principles that consider the Web itself to be the primary platform for the future of the Internet, rather than iOS, Android, Windows, or even Firefox. To that end, Mozilla wants to create a marketplace for cross-platform Web apps. Sure, they would run on Firefox, but they would also run on other HTML5-compliant browsers. Customers would be able to buy a Web app from one place (whether via Mozilla, directly from the developer, or through a competing marketplace) and use that app in any compatible browser on any compatible device, whether that’s an iPad, a Windows desktop, or an Android phone.

Mozilla Apps Ecosystem Market diagram

“Most apps today are built using platform-specific tools and languages,” Mozilla’s Ragavan Srinivasan wrote in it Apps Roadmap. “They are distributed using tightly controlled and locked down app Stores. They only run on specific device and OS combinations. A few dominant market players have assembled these various pieces into integrated app ecosystems that pose some big challenges for users and developers.”

Mozilla is hoping that advances in Web technologies, as well as mobile and desktop hardware, will enable HTML5 apps to rival the experience and performance of native apps. And, unlike app marketplaces from Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and others, Mozilla’s app store will not be locked to a single platform, or even locked to Firefox. Any browser supporting the standards needed by a Web app will do.

Mozilla plans to develop its own Marketplace for Apps by first building on the infrastructure it’s created for Firefox add-ons and extensions. Mozilla’s Marketplace will also be the default location for users to look for things to enhance their Firefox experience. Mozilla says the Marketplace will enable one-click payments: Users will be able to purchase premium apps, and Web apps will be able to tie back to the Mozilla Marketplace to facilitate in-app payments, subscriptions, and other monetized services. All the validation will center around Mozilla’s BrowserID technology.

A post-Firefox Mozilla?

Since Mozilla’s inception, Firefox has been the organization’s primary platform: Firefox allowed Mozilla to drive adoption of Web standards and innovation on the Web. However, now that support for HTML5 and CSS3 are the norm across almost all operating systems and devices (and standards support is seen as a strength, rather than a hassle), Mozilla’s future might not lie as much with Firefox itself as with the goal to treat the Web itself as a platform. Ironically, that’s a notion that harks all the way back to Netscape’s original battle with Microsoft in the 1990s. The question then becomes whether the browsing world — on desktops, tablets, phones, televisions, and other devices — is ready to drop distinctions between operating systems and focus exclusively on the Web. It might seem like a long shot now, but most people thought Mozilla was tilting at windmills when it took on Internet Explorer. Just look how that’s turned out.