Skip to main content

With Firefox OS, Mozilla gets a little dirty to clean the mobile web

With Firefox OS, Mozilla gets a little dirty to clean the mobile web

/

Strange bedfellows aim to crack the Apple-Google duopoly

Share this story

firefox logo stock
firefox logo stock

At MWC this week, showgoers are finally getting a look at the first Firefox OS devices that will come to market in the next few months.

To be blunt, they’re not very good: the ZTE Open and Alcatel One Touch Fire look and feel like low-end handsets from two or three years ago. The operating system — which is "made of the web," as Mozilla proudly proclaims — seems to struggle at times to overcome the cheap silicon it’s been saddled with.

But "good" is a relative term. Firefox OS could actually be wildly successful, no matter how underwhelming the actual phones may be. And that’s because — at least for now — you’re not the customer; your carrier is.

You're not the customer — your carrier is

The unbounded success of iOS and Android has been a mixed bag for the network operators that offer them: the app and multimedia ecosystems behind these platforms are controlled by Apple and Google, respectively. Carriers have been warring for years to avoid becoming "dumb pipes" which don't get paid for the mobile software and services their subscribers use. It's mostly been a losing battle, because your $2.99 App Store download doesn't line AT&T’s or Vodafone’s pockets with any cash either, apart from the data plan you subscribe to.

These carriers want back in, and Apple and Google aren’t about to share that revenue stream. Why would they? iOS and Android have become household names, products that customers have simply come to expect (just ask T-Mobile USA, which has resorted to rearranging its spectrum to better support unlocked iPhones). Even an enormous multinational carrier like Telefónica, a Mozilla partner, lacks the leverage to threaten Apple with dropping the iPhone from its lineup.

And that’s how we arrived at last Sunday’s Mozilla press conference, where senior executives from no fewer than five carriers enthusiastically took the stage alongside Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs. How does a new kid in the perpetually overcrowded smartphone scene have the attention of the likes of Deutsche Telekom, one of the largest operators in the world?

Mozilla's trick: let them in on the money

By letting them in on the money. "We’re going to have a marketplace. But what’s different with our model is, we’re not going to have the only marketplace," said Mozilla’s SVP of products, Jay Sullivan. "I expect many marketplaces to flourish — some may be run by network operators, some might be verticals. You can imagine a marketplace around games, right?" And an operator-run app store begets an operator-run payment system for those apps, where the carrier gets a slice of the pie. "You can connect [a marketplace] to the network operator’s payment model and have upfront and in-app payments where the network operator is a full participant again in the customer relationship, which we think is very important," Sullivan continued.

If you polled ten wireless customers, I’d wager nine — perhaps even all ten — would disagree that their carrier should be a "full participant" in the app marketplace. Look no further than Vodafone’s failed "360," the mega-carrier’s attempt to own the entire customer experience from hardware to software and everything in between. When app stores are run by carriers, bad things happen: software that runs counter to their business interests goes away, for instance. And Mozilla’s proposition of "many marketplaces" sounds like a step backwards — a nod to a time when apps weren’t verified to be malware-free or billed using safe, secure payment methods. But it’s a proposition that cuts carriers back in by empowering them to create their own app stores on deck.

"It is a major step to bring balance back to the telco sector," noted Telefónica’s César Alierta. And in this case, it may not be a balance that consumers want.

Firefox-booth-560

But here’s the twist: Mozilla is a nonprofit organization that provides free, open-source software to anyone who wants it. It effectively only makes enough money through Google search referrals to sustain itself. "Doing good is part of our code," it proudly proclaims. It’s motivated not by multibillion-dollar profits as carriers are, but by promoting and advancing web standards. If we can trust Mozilla's credo, then making money off carrier deals and selling phones isn't the end-goal at all: it's to ensure that mobile phones are as open as the internet itself. So why on earth would it be underwriting a potentially bleak future of carrier-branded app stores?

"I expect many marketplaces to flourish..."

It’s a means to an end — a good end, not an evil one. "We are fundamentally in the same place we were over a decade ago where [the web is] being unnaturally controlled by a few parties," Kovacs said. "The same call that we heard over a decade ago is being asked again of us now, which is to free the web." Mozilla wants to break the Apple-Google ecosystem duopoly by enlisting strange bedfellows — network operators — to support a low-cost phone that can run any app, published by anyone, anywhere, without restrictions. It just needs to get a little dirty to do it.

So discounting Firefox OS isn’t a wise bet, as unimpressive as it might be on the hardware that’s been shown so far. Parallels to the doomed webOS — which, as its name implies, was built in part on open web standards — are hard to ignore, but Mozilla’s project is a very different beast. No one at this week’s press conference was trying to knock the socks off of gadget-obsessed consumers with polish, pizazz, and design, as Palm did at its webOS announcement in 2009. Instead, Mozilla’s singular message was clear: carriers, we can help you make the money that you’re not making right now.

It's a means to an end

Between the lines, the message was very different: we’re here to save the mobile web. Mozilla needs better, smoother, prettier software and a whole lot of luck to do that — but by courting the men in fitted Italian suits who control the world’s networks, it’s put itself in a position to have a fighting chance.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed Sep 24 Striking out

E
External Link
Emma RothSep 24
California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoes the state’s “BitLicense” law.

The bill, called the Digital Financial Assets Law, would establish a regulatory framework for companies that transact with cryptocurrency in the state, similar to New York’s BitLicense system. In a statement, Newsom says it’s “premature to lock a licensing structure” and that implementing such a program is a “costly undertaking:”

A more flexible approach is needed to ensure regulatory oversight can keep up with rapidly evolving technology and use cases, and is tailored with the proper tools to address trends and mitigate consumer harm.


A
Youtube
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Look at this Thing.

At its Tudum event today, Netflix showed off a new clip from the Tim Burton series Wednesday, which focused on a very important character: the sentient hand known as Thing. The full series starts streaming on November 23rd.


A
The Verge
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Get ready for some Netflix news.

At 1PM ET today Netflix is streaming its second annual Tudum event, where you can expect to hear news about and see trailers from its biggest franchises, including The Witcher and Bridgerton. I’ll be covering the event live alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, and you can also watch along at the link below. There will be lots of expected names during the stream, but I have my fingers crossed for a new season of Hemlock Grove.


A
Andrew WebsterSep 24
Looking for something to do this weekend?

Why not hang out on the couch playing video games and watching TV. It’s a good time for it, with intriguing recent releases like Return to Monkey Island, Session: Skate Sim, and the Star Wars spinoff Andor. Or you could check out some of the new anime on Netflix, including Thermae Romae Novae (pictured below), which is my personal favorite time-traveling story about bathing.


A screenshot from the Netflix anime Thermae Romae Novae.
Thermae Romae Novae.
Image: Netflix
J
Twitter
Jay PetersSep 23
Twitch’s creators SVP is leaving the company.

Constance Knight, Twitch’s senior vice president of global creators, is leaving for a new opportunity, according to Bloomberg’s Cecilia D’Anastasio. Knight shared her departure with staff on the same day Twitch announced impending cuts to how much its biggest streamers will earn from subscriptions.


T
Twitter
Tom WarrenSep 23
Has the Windows 11 2022 Update made your gaming PC stutter?

Nvidia GPU owners have been complaining of stuttering and poor frame rates with the latest Windows 11 update, but thankfully there’s a fix. Nvidia has identified an issue with its GeForce Experience overlay and the Windows 11 2022 Update (22H2). A fix is available in beta from Nvidia’s website.


A
External Link
If you’re using crash detection on the iPhone 14, invest in a really good phone mount.

Motorcycle owner Douglas Sonders has a cautionary tale in Jalopnik today about the iPhone 14’s new crash detection feature. He was riding his LiveWire One motorcycle down the West Side Highway at about 60 mph when he hit a bump, causing his iPhone 14 Pro Max to fly off its handlebar mount. Soon after, his girlfriend and parents received text messages that he had been in a horrible accident, causing several hours of panic. The phone even called the police, all because it fell off the handlebars. All thanks to crash detection.

Riding a motorcycle is very dangerous, and the last thing anyone needs is to think their loved one was in a horrible crash when they weren’t. This is obviously an edge case, but it makes me wonder what other sort of false positives we see as more phones adopt this technology.


A
External Link
Ford is running out of its own Blue Oval badges.

Running out of semiconductors is one thing, but running out of your own iconic nameplates is just downright brutal. The Wall Street Journal reports badge and nameplate shortages are impacting the automaker's popular F-series pickup lineup, delaying deliveries and causing general chaos.

Some executives are even proposing a 3D printing workaround, but they didn’t feel like the substitutes would clear the bar. All in all, it's been a dreadful summer of supply chain setbacks for Ford, leading the company to reorganize its org chart to bring some sort of relief.