Is the world ready for the Mozilla Phone – from the makers of the Firefox web browser?

Mozilla is looking to enter the mobile platform market with Boot to Gecko, Thomas Curtis looks at the challenges it faces and how its success is fundamental to the web. Mozilla is looking to enter the mobile platform market with Boot to Gecko, Thomas Curtis looks at the challenges it faces and how its success is fundamental to the web.

Mozilla Boot2Gecko

iOS, Android, WP7, BBOS, Symbian,  Bada, Tizen, WebOS….Gecko?

You might not have heard of that last one (or even the last four) but Mozilla (the company behind Firefox) are throwing their hat into the ring and launching a new mobile platform called Boot to Gecko or B2G as its more commonly shortened. If you have spent much time talking with employees of Mozilla you will soon find that they are (quite naturally) passionate about the web and care deeply about it being open. The open web means exactly that, information should be free of constraints, siloing and closed ecosystems. Need an example of a closed ecosystem? Look no further than the first item in the previous list, iOS.

Lets get one thing clear, this is not a diatribe against Apple, Android or its peers, far from it – closed ecosystems bring a range of benefits to both the consumer and the provider. By acting as a gatekeeper the consumer can rest assured that they are to a certain degree protected from harm and have a range of ‘vetted’ content. For the provider, providing a safe space ensures that your consumer is happy and if you are providing everything that they need, they are far less likely to take their money elsewhere.

This presents a problem for the future, if the world continues to adopt mobile technology at the pace it is currently doing so, everyones data will begin to be split into various controlled and vigorously defended silos. Vigorously defended as, to the provider that data is incredibly valuable and by ensuring that the customer cannot move that data, be it apps, music or video they can keep them ‘locked in’. Now lock in will not be a term that you may be familiar with and you can be damn sure it won’t be mentioned in adverts but its the truth, if you are an Android or iOS user and have been so since the beginning you will have made a significant investment in content, in some cases to the tune of three of four digits. That means divorcing yourself from a platform is going to be a very costly affair, moved to Android bought something on iOS? Too bad, pay up. Consumer lock in is all well and good but the web at its core was designed for the free transfer of data, locking it away hurts the web and, ultimately ourselves.

Mozilla wants to change this with B2G, the web should be the platform and you should have the right to take anything you have bought with you. This is all possible because B2G is built on HTML5, meaning that any app you purchase can be run on any system with a compatible browser on any combination of Phone, Tablet, PC or TV. It’s a powerful message, granted all of this is possible now but you’d need to buy an iPhone, Apple TV and a Mac for the sharing to be similar and that can be quite an expensive proposition.

This digital utopia is not without its challenges, chiefly among them is that write once use anywhere applications rarely succeed in offering a great user experience. As what may work on a 4 inch screen will not, most likely suffice on a 42 inch television. That, however is not a problem unique to B2G and its is one that all developers on all platforms will face in the future, no the two unique issues that B2G faces is that of consumers and developers.

Listed at the beginning of this article are the current mobile platforms (that I can remember) vying for customer attention and realistically the first four are the only ones with any great success. Eight in total, four main players, the rest are either dying (Symbian), zombies (WebOS) or too niche to make dent (Tizen and Bada). Mozilla wants to enter this market? Where the stakes are high and one that even hugely funded companies like Microsoft now struggle to keep pace? They are not, personally even making any devices, taking a Google circa 2007 stance and just creating the software. Which I feel personally is a mistake, Google themselves have now realised that letting others have free reign on interface design is risky and can harm the wider ecosystem (closed or otherwise) and look to release a range of Nexus devices in the autumn.

The western market is a hugely competitive place, one where a newcomer often fails to find traction quickly, but B2G salvation is that it is not targeting the western market first. Its heading straight to Brazil, one of the largest mobile markets in Latin America. How is this possible? Because Mozilla has partnered with Telefonica, the Spanish telecoms company that owns operators like o2, Movistar and Vivo. Together at MWC they announced that they are making a B2G device with the aims of changing the world . Brazil is an interesting place, it has incredibly high mobile phone penetration (125%) compared to landlines and has a fraction of amount of bank accounts and credit cards you would expect. The way users interact with the internet is primarily mobile and there are an entire generation of feature phone users that will be upgrading to their first smartphones. High end smartphones such the iPhone 4S and Galaxy Nexus are far beyond the reaches of the average consumer, meaning that over 80% of the Brazilian population have feature phones. However this will not remain the case for long, after all this is a country which has just overtaken the UK as the world’s sixth largest economy. It is clear that the emerging markets like Brazil, China and India will be the areas of high growth for mobile over the next decade. Most importantly, there is no outright leader as of yet meaning that Mozilla has a great chance as anyone to succeed.

Which is how Telefonica will provide B2G with a massive shot in the arm with its Open Web Device  which is launching at an estimated £40 with carrier billing. This price point will mean that a whole new range of consumers will be able to afford a smartphone, and that the B2G will most likely be their first internet capable device. That it will have integrated carrier billing is also great for developers as it is one of the easiest ways for Latin American users who may not have credit or debit cards to pay for content. The potential for B2G is massive, if it positioned correctly in emerging markets it can truly be a game changer for how parts of the world connect with each other.

Success with consumers doesn’t just hinge on price, a successful platform needs developers and a lot of them creating decent content. Mozilla has a great reputation in the developer space, many developers I have spoken to are excited about B2G and its potential, though when pushed admit they need to be convinced before committing serious amounts of time to the platform. But, let’s not forget, B2G apps are written in HTML5, so a lot of cross platform developers will have no major issues in porting their content across to the platform. I am looking forward to how Mozilla courts developers in the next eight to twelve months, B2G has a great message and its rare that a company does something for reasons other than poorly masked greed.