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Can Mozilla really disrupt mobile like it did the web? [Tech4Africa]

Desigan Chinniah

Look at the figures. Android and Apple are completely dominating the smartphone space. Despite the best efforts of its competitors, no seems able to break their hold on the industry. Mozilla thinks it can.

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The open-source organisation reckons it can disrupt the smartphone OS space in the same way it did with desktop browsing, using its web-based Firefox OS.

Speaking at Tech4Africa Desigan Chinniah, a “Firestarter” at Mozilla, says that we “absolutely” need an alternative mobile OS and that Mozilla is “making a damned good go of it”.

Mozilla started off as an offshoot of Netscape. Anyone familiar with the history of the web will know Netscape as the company responsible for Netscape Navigator, which dominated the browser space right up until the day Internet Explorer launched.

Microsoft’s browser completely dominated the space for the next few years. The launch of Firefox in 2004 changed all that, pretty much kicking off the browser wars as we know them today.

Despite losing ground to Chrome, it’s still one of the big three browsers out there today.

So when it says it wants to disrupt the mobile OS space, you should probably take it seriously.

Mozilla’s “big ideal for your small screen” involves “putting control of the Web in your hands”.

The easy thing, says Chinniah, would’ve been to take the desktop browser and put it in mobile. And Mozilla did exactly that with its mobile browser.

Its aim with Firefox OS though is to bring the Open Web to mobile devices.

Doing so means completely breaking away from the closed silos of our current mobile ecosystems. Think about the frustrations you experience every time you try to sync your various devices, especially if you don’t buy into a single ecosystem.

The example Chinniah uses for this is of his five-year old being frustrated by the fact that she couldn’t be on the same Angry Birds level on a Galaxy Tab as she was on her iPad. “How do you explain the world of closed silos and ecosystems to a five-year old?” he asks. He has a serious point.

If you want to know why that kind of web-based mobile OS could be useful, a section of MG Sielger’s Mobile Mobile Mobile blog post makes the point quite well:

Don’t build an app based on your website. Build the app that acts as if websites never existed in the first place. But the app for the person who has never used a desktop computer. Because they’re coming. Soon.

Although Firefox OS is built on the same Linux Kernel as Android, Mozilla wants you to think of this OS as one big app with lots of mini apps within it.

Not a native app though, there’s nothing native about this OS. It’s all web. Yup, even your phone calls. And it still works when you’re offline. That means a lot of heavy caching but it means serious saving on hardware.

So will it work?

If Firefox OS takes off, its target market could well be the reason it does. Mozilla doesn’t want it to be an iOS killer. Instead wants to give people the web for around the same price as an entry-level Android device or high-end feature phone.

“We’re trying to bring you app like experiences using open standards,” says Chinniah. In part, that means heavy HTML5 integration. That might sound scary, but remember there are eight-million HTML5 developers out there, way more than there are for Android and iOS.

Also remember that a lot of big tech hitters, including Mark Zuckerberg, believe that HTML5 is the solution in the long-term. Mozilla is, in part, taking that philosophy to its logical extreme.

On the other hand someone else once tried to build a web-based OS. If Google couldn’t do it, with all its resources, then why should Mozilla be able to?

It’s worth remembering however that Mozilla has also got a lot less to lose than any of the major corporate players. It can afford to take the gamble and, if it works, it has the potential to generate the same kind of goodwill Firefox once had.

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