Technologizer

This Phone Is All Firefox, All the Way

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Harry McCracken / TIME.com

This year’s CTIA Wireless conference in New Orleans is surprisingly short on major new smartphones. But at last night’s MobileFocus press event, I happened across a fascinating, one-of-a-kind handset which I hadn’t seen in person yet: Mozilla’s alpha version of a phone running Boot to Gecko, its project to turn the web technologies behind Firefox into a stand-alone mobile operating system.

Mozilla took a Samsung Galaxy S II phone running Android and stripped off Android. Then it installed its own version of Linux with software for standard phone functions such as dialing and camera access, a web app store and a user interface powered by Gecko, the Firefox rendering engine. Apps for it are written using HTML5 and other standard web technologies; they can store stuff on the device itself or in the cloud, making the phone useful whether or not it has an Internet connection.

Oh, and its browser is — wait for it! — Firefox.

The end result is a rough draft of a smartphone with software that’s reminiscent both of Palm/HP’s Web OS (which is also based on Linux and runs apps built with web tools) and Google’s Chrome OS (which layers the Chrome browser on top of Linux to create a net-centric operating system).

This being Mozilla, Boot to Gecko is open software — more open, most likely, than Google’s Android, yet another Linux-based mobile operating system. The core of Android is open, which is why companies such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble can rejigger it to power the Kindle Fire and Nook, respectively. But Google exacts more control over the Google apps and Google Play app store which most Android devices use. Mozilla says that it’ll let others do with Boot to Gecko what they will — including borrowing its technologies for other operating systems.

There’s no news on when folks in the U.S. might be able to buy Boot to Gecko phones — which, when they arrive, will be called something other than “Boot to Gecko phones.” Spanish-based wireless carrier Telef√≥nica says it plans to release one in Brazil early next year; Deutsche Telekom is also involved with the project.

The phone I saw here in New Orleans was too unfinished to form any real opinion about, beyond “Hey, it seems to work!” Mozilla hasn’t finished the interface and polished it up, and mobile phones, more than most gadgets, are all about interface and polish.

Web OS and Chome OS, sadly, both point out some of the pitfalls of building operating systems that are as much web as software. Web OS was always a tad sluggish, which didn’t help sales of devices that ran it, probably contributing to the software’s current neither-dead-nor-alive status. And the indifferent response to Chrome OS, which runs on laptops rather than phones or tablets, is pretty good evidence that web apps aren’t yet ready to replace conventional local apps in all instances.

Then there’s the fact that it’s possible that the world already has more mobile operating systems than it knows what to do with — admirable though open software such as Boot to Gecko is, few consumers will adopt it unless it’s at least as snazzy and useful as iOS and Android, the only two phone OSes that aren’t struggling.

In short, Boot to Gecko strikes me as a decidedly idiosyncratic project. I’m still glad that Mozilla is working on it, for three reasons. First, the effort it’s putting into making open web technologies powerful enough to do all the things that native apps do well is a worthy undertaking which should lead to a better web, whether or not Boot to Gecko takes off.

Second, I’m a fan of Mozilla and am happy to see it prepping itself for the post-PC world. There’s a good version of Firefox for Android, but it’s clear that if Mozilla is going to be as important in the future as it was for so many years, it won’t be because it offers a conventional web browser for phones. It’ll be because of something new — and Boot to Gecko is certainly new.

And lastly — Boot to Gecko may not be any more quixotic than the notion of taking on a browser with well over 90 percent market share, which is what Firefox did when it first arrived. Few pundits would have guessed that Mozilla would play a more important role than any other organization in ending the ugly era of Internet Explorer’s monopoly, but it did. So maybe Boot to Gecko will end up mattering in ways that are not immediately obvious. I’ll be delighted if it does.