Firefox OS Interview: How Mozilla Might Change The World From The Bottom Up

It's tempting - particularly for journalists - to fixate purely on the fastest, most expensive and biggest mobile devices at MWC.

But, arguably, this year's key devices have actually be found in the low-end market. They might not look great in product shots, but they do have the potential to change the world.

Take Nokia's £15 phone - not a looker, but honestly remarkable in terms of its value to developing markets.

Then there is Firefox OS, the open-source, open-web, HTML 5-based mobile operating system from the non-profit Mozilla Foundation.

Announced barely a year ago, Firefox OS is now set for a full launch on a range of devices by the summer. And while it's going to target mainly developing markets at first, it's also coming to Spain and Poland, and on big operators like Sprint and Telefonica. And now high-end manufacturers including LG and Sony have said they either will - in Sony's case hope to - make phones for Firefox.

In fact, Mozilla admits that its OS might end up in the UK sooner rather than later:

"It might be less time than you might think before your readers in the UK begin to feel palpably the effects of Firefox OS," Johnathan Nightingale, Vice President of Firefox Engineering, told HuffPost at this year's show.

We caught up with Johnathan to talk about Firefox OS, its progress - and how it might just end up changing everything.

This interview has been lightly edited for space and grammar.

You announced Firefox OS roughly a year ago - what progress have you made?

Last year we were here and we had this idea of Firefox OS, and at the time our big announcement was that Telefonica and Deutsch Telecom thought it was a good idea too. But ideas were all we had - we could demo something but it was demoed on a flashed Android phone.

This year the big news is that it's real. Instead of standing up and saying, hey we've got this idea, and these other people are crazy enough to believe us, this year we're saying we've got 23 partners that are either OEMs or operator groups, many planning launches this year - some as early as the summer. We've got multiple devices that you can pick up and handle, and see in action. The progress we've made over the year is really gratifying for us.

Why does the idea of Firefox OS appear to resonate in the UK, even though we won't see it take form as a consumer device there for some time?

I think the name Firefox opens a door, and my sense is that your readers in the UK already have smartphones. If they look at where the web is evolving they see that over the next ten years we're going to have another 2 billion people online. Those people aren't going to be in the UK. In these emerging markets the people coming online won't first touch the web with a $700 smartphone… Of course we're going to aim at the places where there is the greatest need.

But having said that the operators we're talking about - Telefonica, Sprint - these are operators that have significant first world presence. And while it's up to them to deliver news about what their launch targets are, they're announcing places like Spain and Poland. It might be less time than you might think before your readers in the UK begin to feel palpably the effects of Firefox OS.

It's also almost secondary what marketshare Firefox OS ends up with. If it's 10 or 20 or 50%, that's great, we will celebrate, there will be balloons. But if we make enough noise, get enough of this developing marketshare and get enough of this app developer mindshare, then Google and Apple have to sit up and recognise that the single silos that serve them don't serve their users really well. If they start recognising HTML 5 apps as top-level, first-class citizens, that's still a win for us.


Firefox OS Screenshots

Arguably some of the most interesting stuff at MWC 2013 has been seen in the lower-end market. Do you think the tech press over focuses on the highest-end premium products?

If they do it's understandable because they're going to be using these devices. You can measure if someone comes to our stand from a Mexican publication they're that much more excited that the launch plans are coming. But I think a lot of people even in developed markets, and the press, recognise the impact this might have. You just have to look more than a year out.

How important is it to have somebody like Sony saying they're interested in looking at Firefox OS?

Huge. It's huge. Absolutely. We announced LG as a partner earlier this week, but having people like them and Sony, people recognised for these high-end devices, is really important. Coming into emerging markets makes sense for us in a mission point of view, but also because new entrants often start with cost disruption and then move up the value chain.

But we're talking about the web, and it's evolved on desktop computers over the last 15 years. The power of that device has multiplied 100-fold. You're looking at a platform that is very scaleable - it can scale down better than iOS or Android can, but it can scale up.

If you look at our demos, we've got fully immersive 3D gaming on a handset. That's something that the web couldn't do five years ago. It can now because we've been driving a lot of the standards and performance to make it so. Having people who can make these high-end devices is great because we're quite confident the OS can scale up to that.

Looking at MWC it seems that hardware has plateaued to some extent - there's refinement but not much true invention. Do you think that's true - and what does it mean for Firefox OS?

I think the hardware companies are trying really hard to find something amazing, for sure. I think that fundamentally whatever we introduce next, and however the hardware evolves - whether it's evolutionary or revolutionary - certain things aren't going way. People are going to want to connect, have access to stuff that isn't in their pocket. Cellular networks aren't going anywhere anytime soon, and the power of the 'cloud' as a way to access services and information, that's all going to be there.

The stuff we care about in terms of giving you that choice and portability, I have trouble imagining a piece of hardware that would really disrupt that.

The last time we had one of these massive revolutions around smartphones really coming into being, the people introducing them had a real interest in closing them up and making them consumption devices that are tied to a particular stack. It wouldn't surprise me if they tried that again.

But people tried that in the 90s - if you wanted an encyclopaedia you bought Microsoft Encarta on CD-ROM. And if you had a Mac you were just out of luck. And users revolted when they realised they didn't have to put up with that.

By all means, innovate, put it in my glasses, put it in a contact lens, put it in my ear, but at the end of the day I'm going to want that autonomy.