Mozilla's Boot to Gecko promises fewer hassles, more open than iOS, Android

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Mozilla stepped into the spotlight last month when it announced its first ecosystem partners for its HTML-5-based mobile operating system, Boot to Gecko. But, there are still many unanswered questions, such as how apps in the Mozilla Marketplace will be discovered and how revenue will be split with developers.

Nevertheless, the OS is starting to get traction. Mozilla promised to have handsets with its technology on the market this year and received support from Qualcomm and Adobe. In addition, it named Telefonica as an operator partner and Deutsche Telecom as an interested operator.

Developers are interested in the new platform because it will use the Web to enable HTML5 apps while also providing access to core device APIs. The platform also promises to provide a more open development and business environment than Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS and Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android, while reducing development hassles and costs.

Market potential is unknown

However, the potential market for this new operating system and app store is unknown. Without devices or more operator commitments to help scale the market, developers might not fully engage with the platform, even if they're highly interested in it.

"It's clear that the direction of the market is moving toward HTML5, and HTML5 is becoming more and more important. So, at the very least, developers should be thinking about it and figuring out if it will fit into their futures," said Carlo Longino, community manager at the Wireless Industry Partnership.

He said that Mozilla sponsored one of WIP's developer events at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, last month and that it attracted a lot of developer interest. However, he noted, there is plenty of time for developers to decide if they want to commit to this new platform. 

"There's not a decision that needs to be made today," said Longino.

If and when the new OS and marketplace begin to develop traction, there may be reasons to get involved sooner rather than later. When a platform is new, applications have better chance of finding an audience and capturing a large share of the emerging market than they might achieve in larger, established ecosystems. Also, by getting in on an emerging OS early in its evolution, developers can forge a close relationship with the principals involved, which can provide market advantages and even lead to unexpected partnership opportunities. Some of Android's earliest developers, for example, gained such advantages and were better able to fend of competitors when the Android Market began building inventory.

Revenue share is still uncertain

Developer interest and willingness to work with Boot to Gecko will depend on the business model for the Mozilla Marketplace that Mozilla will use for app discovery. So far Mozilla has emphasized that it will make a variety of monetization approaches available but it has not explained how it intends to configure revenue sharing or other terms with its developers. These terms will influence developer acceptance.

"They have to make it attractive, especially when they're in this nascent stage and have to generate interest in the platform when there is no base of devices out there," said Geoff Blaber, director of devices, software and platforms at CCS Insight. 

boot to gecko

Boot to Gecko prototypes in an Open Web Devices presentation at MWC.

Andreas Gal, director of research at Mozilla, declined to discuss the business model for the marketplace. Instead, he emphasized that the organization will not only launch its own store, it will use its infrastructure to help third-party companies and operators create their own stores and that store owners will be able to establish their own business models. If a company wants to create a marketplace with minimal fees, for example, that would be up to them, he said.

"We are trying to make a system that is so open that it builds in competition from the beginning," said Gal.

Making the most of open source

Mozilla is making extensive use of open-source software in the new OS and it is also emphasizing its commitment to make code available to the public under open source principles so interested parties can help improve and advance the technology. The open source process can be a hindrance and is considered a reason that the LiMo Foundation and Symbian did not succeed, Blaber noted. But if Mozilla can manage the process effectively while also getting input from operators, the approach could help the platform and drive developer participation, he said.

Dave Gruber

Gruber thinks developers in search of more transparency may defect from Android.

Dave Gruber, director of developer product marketing at Black Duck Software, a development firm that helps companies use open source software, believes Mozilla's approach will attract developers, especially those who wish for more transparency from Android.

"I think this Mozilla operating system will provide a much broader opportunity for developers to engage at an early level and contribute to its success," he said.

While the attention Boot to Gecko has received so far emphasizes mobile device applications, Gruber asserted that developers who want to participate in the evolution of the OS should pursue opportunities to extend its use into untapped markets.

He noted that the embedded device and machine-to-machine communications industries would benefit from an open-source web-based OS.  The Genivi Alliance, which automotive companies have formed to create a standard, open-source platform for in-vehicle infotainment systems, illustrates the type of opportunities that are available for mobile OSes, he said. The medical device industry, which also uses a lot of embedded solutions, would benefit from this type of OS as well, he added.

Mozilla's OS will allow people to "move into these other markets and make rapid progress there," Gruber said. He urged developers to consider these markets even if they are working simultaneously with the OS for phone and tablet applications.