Mozilla eyes mobile OS landscape with new Boot to Gecko project

Mozilla logoMozilla has announced a new experimental project called Boot to Gecko (B2G) with the aim of developing an operating system that emphasizes standards-based Web technologies. The initial focus will be on delivering a software environment for handheld devices such as smartphones.

The current mobile landscape is heavily fragmented by the lack of interoperability between each of the siloed platforms. Mozilla says that B2G is motivated by a desire to demonstrate that the standards-based open Web has the potential to be a competitive alternative to the existing single-vendor application development stacks offered by the dominant mobile operating systems.

The project is still at the earliest stages of planning. Mozilla has some ideas about how it wants to proceed, but seemingly few concrete decisions have been made about where to start and what existing technologies to use. The project was announced now despite the lack of clarity so that contributors will be able to participate in the planning process.

Mozilla also intends to publish the source code as it is developed rather than waiting until it can release a mature product. These characteristics could make the development process a lot more open and inclusive than the practices that Google uses for its Android operating system.

Mozilla's current tentative plan is to adopt a slim layer of existing code from the lower levels of the Android operating system for hardware enablement purposes and then build a completely custom user interface and application stack around Gecko, the Firefox HTML rendering engine. Android was chosen because it will theoretically offer compatibility with existing hardware, but Mozilla ultimately intends to use "as little of Android as possible." It will not use Android's Java-based environment and it will not support programming in native code.

A foundational goal of the B2G project is to explore and remedy areas where current Web standards are insufficient for building modern mobile applications. Instead of haphazardly grafting vendor-specific markup or extensions into the application runtime, Mozilla will seek to propose new standards to address the challenges that emerge during development. It wants the applications developed for B2G to eventually be able to run normally in any conventional standards-compliant Web browser (yes, that presumably rules out XUL).

Building an operating system seems like an excessive approach to fulfilling the stated goals of the B2G project. It would be simpler and much more straightforward to focus on building a standalone Web application runtime—like an open alternative to Adobe AIR—rather than building a complete operating system from the bottom up.

There are a lot of fundamental issues that make developing software with Web technologies less practical than using conventional user interface toolkits. HTML's document-centric approach to layout and the lack of standardized mechanisms for binding programmatic data models to user interface views pose many challenges. It's not really clear if Mozilla is interested in addressing those issues or will continue to leave that as an exercise for third-party JavaScript toolkits.

It seems like the areas where Mozilla is interested in pursuing new standards are basic platform integration and access to hardware. It wants to have uniform and predictable ways for Web applications to access a platform's contact and messaging capabilities, geolocation functionality, cameras, and dialer.

Of course, Mozilla is also interested in tackling some the issues relating to security and privilege management that are implied by giving Web applications such deep access to underlying platform components. Those areas are, perhaps, where building the whole operating system becomes advantageous.

There are a number of existing products and open source software projects like Titanium, PhoneGap, Webian, Chrome OS, and webOS that cover some of the same ground. None, however, really have the same scope and focus as B2G. It's possible that there are some opportunities for collaboration.

A code repository is hosted on GitHub, but doesn't have anything yet besides a README file. For some additional information about the project (there aren't many details yet) you can refer to the B2G wiki page.

Source: Ars Technica

Tags: Mozilla

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