Firefox developer Mozilla will reveal partners later this month for its Boot to Gecko project, an ambitious attempt to build a browser-based operating system for mobile devices.
At first glance, it's easy to write off Boot to Gecko (B2G) as doomed from the start. When it comes to taking on iOS and Android, WebOS was a dud, BlackBerry OS is struggling, and Microsoft is carving out a niche for Windows Phone only by dint of extraordinary effort.
But B2G has a couple things going for it. First, it's a browser-based operating system, meaning that Web apps become its native apps. With legions of Web programmers already at work and increasingly attuned to mobile browsing, B2G isn't starting from scratch.
Second, it turns out, B2G has allies.
"B2G is partnering up," Mozilla Chief Technology Officer Brendan Eich said in a tweet. "More at MWC," he added, referring to the frenzied Mobile World Congress show that starts in a week and a half in Barcelona, Spain.
Having Web developers as allies is nice, but having strong partners is essential--especially because Mozilla plans for B2G products to arrive in the second quarter. Without a vehicle to deliver B2G into users' hands, the software will be mostly irrelevant.
And Mozilla doesn't want to be on the sidelines. The non-profit's mission is to keep the Web open, and it can't do that without some leverage on the actual technology used. Firefox on personal computers has served Mozilla's purpose, but Chrome and Microsoft bring new competition there, and Mozilla hasn't had much success so far gaining a foothold on the mobile Web.
So who might become a B2G partner? I'm guessing that the most likely candidates are the mobile network operators, aka carriers. They hold a powerful position in the mobile market, in particular because their strong retail presence is often the channel that delivers phones into customers' hands. But they've seen handset makers such as Apple and software companies such as Google usurp much of their power.
Indeed, last year at Mobile World Congress, 24 mobile operators launched the Wholesale Applications Community, an effort to promote Web apps that can run on any phone. WAC is essentially an attempted end-run around Apple's App Store and Google's Android Marketplace. WAC allies include AT&T, Verizon Wireless, NTT DoCoMo, Deutsche Telekom, China Mobile, and Vodafone.
WAC hasn't dented Apple and Google dominance when it comes to mobile apps. But it does show that some powerful players have an appetite for Web-app technology as a way to counterbalance the stronger players. Perhaps some of them see B2G as a new way to serve this goal.
Carriers today are in danger of being relegated to the role of retailer and dump pipe, with not much influence over online services, app stores, and other cash-generating possibilities. No doubt carriers would like to return to the days when they exerted a lot more power over the mobile marketplace.
B2G in the limelight
B2G is one of Mozilla's top 2012 priorities that the browser maker unveiled earlier this week. The organization's overarching goal is to try to break the ecosystem lock-in that can trap customers into a technology stack extending from device hardware through the operating system and reaches up to services and app stores.
B2G plays a role in Mozilla's plan to use Web apps to break the lock-in.
According to Mozilla's B2G road map, the organization wants to demonstrate the mobile software in the first quarter of 2012 and build it into products in the second quarter.
Software distribution is a higher-level part of the ecosystem that Mozilla hopes to crack. First, it's got plans for its own coming marketplace. Second, it's working on technology that would let other app stores work with it, so people who buy a Web-app game from one won't have to re-purchase it later from another.
And the operating system layer is also key. As with Chrome OS, Google's laptop-oriented browser OS, programmers write software that runs on the browser. The devices don't expose the underlying sub-browser OS (Linux in BTG's case) that handles hardware details such as displaying pixels, paying attention to multitouch gestures, or putting a processor to sleep when it's idle.
But to make a smartphone useful, new services are needed beyond what browsers traditionally have offered. Thus Mozilla's WebAPI effort to provide interfaces so apps running in the browser can dial the phone, operate the camera, send and receive text messages, manage an address book, dim or brighten the screen, and monitor battery levels.
Until recently, the WebAPI work was somewhat at odds with a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) project caled Device API (DAP) that's backed by browser maker Opera and others. In January, though, Mozilla agreed to marry its WebAPI project with DAP.
And of course the browser itself is at the center of the project. Mozilla has been working for years on a mobile browser project called Fennec, but has been thwarted when the operating systems it supported fell by the wayside. Now it's got Firefox working on on Android, though.
Many of ingredients necessary for Mozilla's mobile success are therefore coming together. The next steps, though--persuading partners to commit strongly, and attracting developers, and winning customers--are out of the organization's direct control.
Cracking the mobile market is tough. But with Firefox effectively barred from iOS and Windows Phone and not installed by default on Android, Mozilla has no easier ways to steer the mobile market.