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Firefox OS Is Going to Be a Game Changer

FireFox OSAs we all know, Android and iOS currently dominate the operating system market. However, they suffer from several painful drawbacks. Is Firefox OS, the proverbial new kid on the block, going to reshuffle the deck and change the game? The answer hinges on whether its makers and marketers can avoid the mistakes that have already been made by the big two.

To begin with, there’s no arguing with the fact that Android is a nice operating system. I also like the wide variety of Android devices that are available to choose from. I like the form factor of my Galaxy Note, and even though the UI is cumbersome and inconsistent, it gives me what I want: nice browsing capabilities and a communication device that does what I expect it to.

Yet some things about Android really bother me. The “Google Play” market app comes to mind. Quite simply, it’s horrible.  There’s no capability to sort the apps by their ratings or other attributes. If I want to rate an app, I have to do it using my real name and using my Google+ account — a requirement that I refuse for fundamental privacy reasons. Besides, I don’t really know what my phone is doing.

Even worse are the privacy concerns raised by the basic way Android works. For example, why am I prevented from stopping an application (except when using third-party apps) the way I could do on any desktop OS? Is it because Android was designed to host applications that keep running 24/7 to track me? Why do I find Google Latitude still running in the background despite the fact that I forced it to shut down just hours before? Why do most of the apps on Google Play demand access to my phone number and identity? Not incidentally, these concerns are all amplified by the current NSA revelations, which boost the feeling of being spied on by Google and other PR companies that make use of obscure Android features (and which in any case should not be news to any IT specialist who hasn’t been living under a rock for the past 30 years).

And then there’s iOS, which is also a good enough operating system as far as it goes, but which falls prey to many of the same concerns plaguing Android. In many ways it’s just as much of a privacy nightmare as Android, and in some ways it may even be worse. It’s truly difficult to know which OS to single out for harsher criticism here. For example, it’s well-known that Apple is gathering a tremendous amount of iPhone user data in order to sell it to PR agencies. While Android can still be easily customized using third-party apps so that no Google apps are required at all, iOS is a closed system that locks users into relying solely on Apple’s costly and sometimes cumbersome services, such as iTunes. But then again, while Android is not as limiting as Apple’s iOS, its reliance on Google services is so deeply integrated that only sophisticated rooting procedure can help clean the device up from Google’s nosy “free” additions designed to collect user data.

In light of all this, the decision by the Mozilla Foundation to build a new Linux-based mobile system sounds like awfully good news to me. The first version of Firefox OS has recently been released, and it looks extremely promising. The first Firefox OS-based phones have already arrived, made by Spanish manufacturer Geeksphone, and Firefox OS is picking up steam through alliances like the recent one announced with Foxconn, which will give it 3000 additional developers and probably greatly accelerate the development of the system. We can only hope that despite this cooperation with a massive Chinese company whose location in mainland China leaves it little choice but to play by the rules dictated by the Communist Party, Firefox OS will remain 100% open-source, thus eliminating concerns about the privacy and security of the devices that use it.

Though it’s still fairly new, there is absolutely no reason to assume Firefox OS is going to be a second-rate operating system. All leading mobile OSes are likewise based on Linux, so no fundamental stability or connectivity problems should be expected. If this becomes and remains a truly open system without any strings attached and without any privacy traps and phone-maker lock-ins, then it looks like it could mount a real challenge to the Android/iOS duopoly. In fact, it just might change the mobile OS market forever.

That said, there are still further dangers that need to be avoided besides data privacy concerns. Phone makers could still do to Firefox OS what they did to Android by adding their own “improved” components and GUI modifications, locking their customers into obscure “app markets,” allowing extensive (and intrusive) branding by mobile network operators, and so on.

There’s also the interesting question of what the new operating system’s app market will be. Mozilla’s existing Marketplace appears to be the logical choice. If they play it right, the Marketplace may become a long-lasting revenue stream that competes with Apple’s and Google’s counterparts. But there are various ways Mozilla could ruin this opportunity. They might introduce awkward “alliances” with Google or other advertisement companies. They might twist the way apps are presented to users depending on the marketing efforts of the app and advertisement vendors. They might allow for intrusive ad platforms that invade Firefox OS apps, just like what happened with the Android app ecosystem. I sincerely hope none of this comes to pass.

At the moment I’m convinced that Firefox OS has the potential to be tremendously successful. In fact, I think it could be revolutionary. An open, free, independent operating system that has no privacy pitfalls and isn’t limited to a closed ecosystem will do to the mobile OS what Linux did to the desktop and server OS markets: it will change the game for the better — and forever.

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About the Author

Roman MildnerRoman Mildner, Certified Project Manager (PMP) and member of the United Mentors Network (UMN), has worked in the IT industry since 1992 and an independent consultant and project manager since 1998. His professional offering includes IT strategy consulting, project management and process improvement. For more details, please visit his UMN page.

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