Mozilla’s Boot 2 Gecko and why it could change the world

Features Richard Goodwin 18:02, 2 Mar 2012

We sit down with Mozilla’s Brendan Eich and Andreas Gal to get the inside scoop on the company’s HTML5-based mobile phone operating system, Boot to Gecko (B2G)

‘Android is not open source.’

That’s what Mozilla’s Director of Research Andreas Gal thinks of Google’s purportedly ‘open source’ mobile operating system. In Gal’s view Google’s platform is no different from Apple’s iOS. The entire platform – including its design, development, and direction – is ‘dominated by Google.’

According to Gal, ‘Google makes all of the technological decisions behind closed doors and pushes them outwards. You may or may not get a look at the source after the device comes out. But it’s certainly not open. And in this sense it’s no different from Apple’s platform, except that maybe sometimes you get access to the source.’

And this is where Mozilla comes into the equation. Boot 2 Gecko is based solely on HTML5, JavaScript and CSS and is completely open source. Mozilla doesn’t even keep a ‘physical’ copy of the source code in its offices – everything to do with the platform is available online for all to see. 

Brendan Eich, Mozilla’s co-founder (and the inventor of JavaScript), told Know Your Mobile that the days of native shells (iOS/Android) and proprietary software (Objective-C) could soon be over as Mozilla continues to standardise and implement Open Web APIs that will one day eradicate the need for separate platforms, allowing users to find and use apps on their mobiles without having to opt into a privately owned platform.

‘Separate platforms are no longer necessary once you have the correct standardisation and inter-operation,’ said Eich.

Apple’s iOS, Microsoft’s Windows Phone, RIM’s BlackBerry OS 10 and Google’s Android operating systems are all ‘walled gardens,’ according to Gal, meaning that all of the above are in it for one reason: to make money.

‘Google builds Android not for your benefit but for Google’s benefit, and the shareholders it has to satisfy. This is the same with Apple,’ said Gal. He added: ‘Mozilla is very different – we are a non-profit organisation. In the past Mozilla was all about making the web better. But now people are going to mobile, so we’re following them there.’

‘What we’ve developed [with B2G] is a completely open stack that is 100 per cent free. We have a publicly visible repository and all the development happens in the open. We use completely open standards and there’s no propriety software or technology involved.’

So what is Mozilla getting at here? Simple: dump the standard smartphone operating system, forget Apple and Google, and embrace the freedom of pure HTML5.

Gal tells us that because the B2G stack is based on HTML5 there are literally millions of developers out there that know how to create content for the platform. There will also be plenty of opportunities for developers to make money from their creations as well, according to Gal.

Google and Mozilla have developed technology that lets web developers manifest their entire site, including payment methods, into an icon that can be placed on a B2G device’s homescreen.

But all this, Gal tells us, is still work in progress. Boot 2 Gecko is still in its embryonic stages at present – but the ball has certainly begun rolling.

‘We’re working with operators to create an easy way for customers to pay for content,’ said Gal. ‘Mobile users want to go to a store, discover content and pay for it easily. We’re working on making this a reality inside B2G via personal identity systems.’

Persona, featuring BrowserID, is one such personal identity system. Persona lets users use their email address and a single password to sign in or buy materials and media. Mozilla demoed Persona at MWC 2012.

‘You own your applications. You own your data and you have the power to take them wherever you like,’ said Eich. ‘And this will be dependent on things like Persona, which is the most secure and safe password free sign-on and the identity providers don’t see all of your details like they would with Facebook Connect, for instance.’

He added: ‘the end result is an “unwalled garden” where you’re free to move around without being forced into opting fully into one platform.’

But what’s most impressive about B2G is how well it runs on low-end hardware. During our meeting with Gal and Eich, we got a demo of B2G running incredibly smoothly on a $60 handset with a 600Mhz CPU and just 128MB of RAM. Gaming, web browsing, video and typing were all seamless.

Gal also confirmed that Qualcomm is partnering with Mozilla on its B2G project.

B2G is based on the same web-rendering engine as Mozilla’s Firefox browser, meaning that it is extremely lightweight when compared to Android and iOS. For this reason getting smartphone-level performance out of a budget mobile handset suddenly becomes a reality.

‘There are so many opportunities for technology like this [B2G] in emerging countries. What people are looking for there is a solid smartphone experience – browsing, web browsing and applications – at a decent price point. Users’ in India, for instance, cannot afford Google’s quad-core devices but they could afford a $60 HTML5-powered B2G handset.’

‘Google’s Android platform is too hardware dependent,’ says Gal. ‘Android 4.0 demands 512MB of RAM as a minimum for instance. Mozilla’s web stack allows OEMs to produce $60 handsets with smartphone-like performance,’ said Gal.

He added: ‘But of course if you add in extra hardware for higher tier phones, the performance will only get better.’

Here’s a video of Boot 2 Gecko in action below:

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