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Hands On With Boot2Gecko, the Mobile OS Built Entirely on Web Standards

A turning point in an open source mobile OS?

NEW ORLEANS — Mozilla is most famous for its desktop software, so seeing the non-profit, open-source-oriented company at a trade show for the wireless industry initially seems odd, even dissonant. But the developer behind the Firefox web browser and Thunderbird e-mail client is branching out into a smartphone operating system of all things, so its presence at the CTIA wireless show in New Orleans is all but de rigueur.

“The mobile space is different than the desktop web,” Todd Simpson, Mozilla’s chief of innovation, told Wired at CTIA. “We can’t rely on word of mouth to get us onto smartphones and into retail stores with the level of success it had for us on the desktop.”

With that in mind, Simpson and other Mozilla honchos attended their first CTIA convention, showing off phones running their operating system project, Boot2Gecko, or B2G. I caught up with Simpson, and tried out B2G running on four different Samsung Galaxy S II handsets. While the software is still in its early stages, it did look very promising.‪
‬”The interest we’ve seen from operators so far is because we’re offering the open web on a smartphone, and anyone can grab it and use it however they’d like.” –Todd Simpson‪

‬The B2G operating system, its user interface, and all the apps it runs are built entirely using modern web standards, such as HTML5 and JavaScript. On the backend of the OS, everything runs on Gecko, the HTML rendering engine Mozilla uses for its Firefox browser — hence the somewhat clunky, consumer-unfriendly name, Boot2Gecko.

Simpson promised that the web-based OS and all the apps it runs will eventually match the functionality and performance of what we see in Google’s Android OS, Apple’s iOS and Microsoft’s Windows Phone platform. It’s an ambitious goal, but from what I saw, its didn’t seem far-fetched.

At this point, B2G’s user interface consists of a few home screens’ worth of apps, each of which can be launched by tapping a rectangular icon. The apps may be web-based, but launched blazingly fast because most were cached onto the phones. Thanks to the caching scheme, B2G phones will still work when a network signal is out of reach.

So far, Mozilla is only showing off the most basic apps. There’s a phone dialer for making calls, a web browser (of course), a camera app, a gallery app for checking out the photos you’ve shot, a video player, and a calculator app. B2G also runs a few games, including the iOS and Android hit Cut The Rope.

An app called CrystalSkull demoed Boot2Gecko’s ability to handle complicated 3D graphics — you manipulate the motion of a clear, floating skull with touches and swipes. CrystalSkull, and every other app I tried, responded exactly as you’d expect from a smartphone.

Pinching and zooming photos, surfing the web, playing games, and even placing an actual phone call all worked with no touchscreen lag or performance issues. In all, my 30 minutes with the B2G phones left me feeling like I had been field-testing a perfectly able set of smartphones.

But, again, Boot2Gecko is in its early stages. There’s no centralized app store, no place to buy music and movies, and the camera app can’t yet shoot video. What is clear, however, is that Mozilla is making progress at a surprisingly fast pace. Could HTML5-based apps spell the end for relatively closed app platforms like iOS and even Android? Only time will tell. But if nothing else, B2G proves that basic, baseline app-like functionality can be executed in HTML5 and JavaScript.

Simpson wouldn’t say which hardware makers are interested in using Boot2Gecko in the U.S. market, though rumors have floated LG as a possible OEM partner. Demoing the OS on Samsung Galaxy S II handsets wasn’t a plug for Samsung, Simpson said.

“We’re using Samsung phones because they’re good phones and we had them around,” Simpson said. “We’ve had Boot2Gecko running on a bunch of different phones from different companies so far.” Anyone with a GitHub account can download a build of the OS and load it to a touchscreen handset to try the software out for themselves, he noted.

Telefonica is hoping to launch a smartphone running Boot2Gecko in Brazil sometime early next year, and T-Mobile’s parent company Deutsche Telekom is interested in offering B2G phones as well, Simpson said.

Oh, and about the name: When the OS eventually launches, it won’t be called Boot2Gecko, Simpson said.

Like the Firefox browser, B2G is a completely open-source project, with Mozilla engineers working alongside any coder who’d like to contribute across the web. The open source approach will allow for infinite customization possibilities, Simpson said, complete with downloadable user interface themes (later on, down the road) and the option for hardware manufacturers to fork the software into their own operating systems.

“Our goal is to keep Boot2Gecko as open as possible,” he said. “The interest we’ve seen from operators so far is because we’re offering the open web on a smartphone, and anyone can grab it and use it however they’d like. No other operating system is really offering that at this point.”

By Nathan Olivarez-Giles


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