Imagine, if you would, a mobile environment in which you had complete control over how every little thing you see looks and acts. Mozilla’s Boot to Gecko (B2G) project is a mobile operating system that uses the web as your delivery mechanism for everything. As it stands right now, the B2G project is very much pre-alpha, but after spending some time with the OS on the Samsung Galaxy S2 it is clear that Mozilla plans to deliver a whole new experience to users.
Everything is HTML5
The core to the Boot to Gecko project is the web. Everything you see — right down to the power icon and network status information — is generated by and displayed with HTML5. The icons for the apps, the apps themselves, and the notifications the apps generate… all HTML5. Even the Dialer and the Settings for the device are handled this way.
The purpose here is twofold. First, it allows the device to perform much faster by removing all of the software layers that exist in traditional OS methods. Second, the entirety of the OS is editable by the end user. Right from the OS, in real-time, a user can edit the HTML for a specific page and change how it looks and feels. This gives the user a fast OS that is 100% personalized (or at least personalizable) to their preferences.
The real power behind this comes from HTML5′s ability to communicate with the hardware directly. If you want to take a photo on B2G, the OS just opens a website that uses HTML5 to access the camera. As an added feature to this, any website can include the camera function for B2G using the same tools. You could go to Facebook and take your picture right from the website, instead of having to take it, store it, and then share it. By allowing everything access to that hardware layer, you remove a lot of the steps that go into using a phone today.
For more on HTML5 check out ExtremeTech’s piece, What is HTML5.
What about Apps?
We have become an app-driven culture. This isn’t because apps add anything new or unique, but because they offers services in a small, understandable packages. The web is far too confusing for the average consumer. Most people have a dozen or so websites that they go to and the rest of the Internet is this sort of scary wilderness that they don’t understand or care to know more about. Apps take the web and chop it up into these small, digestible bites. The reality, however, is that apps don’t offer anything that wasn’t already on the web in some other form or fashion. Mozilla is taking a hybrid approach to the app world with their own app market.
Users who want to simply harness the power of the web on their phone are free to do so, but the app-focused among us will also have the option to use Mozilla’s web apps. Already, many developers have taken advantage of the relatively simply idea of taking HTML5 and pushing their app to work in that environment.
Services like Google Voice and Gmail have had HTML5 apps for a long time now, and they work great on B2G. The same concept applies here — there are far more web developers out there than there are app developers right now, and many of those developers are already very familiar with HTML5. This move gives Mozilla access to a much larger group of developers than even exist for iOS and Android today.
Security in a web-only world
We all have browsers. We all get pop-up ads, malware threats, and all kind of other things. So, how smart is it really for our phones to be one big browser? When I asked Todd Simpson, the Chief of Innovation for Mozilla, he explained that security is something they plan to take very seriously. The core of this project will be to function in much the same way that Firefox does now. Sandboxing the users as much as possible from the potential threats found on the web is a priority for the OS, and the goal is to ensure that issues like pop up ads and malware aren’t something the user ever has to deal with.
Todd also spoke briefly on a permissions system for web apps that are installed. While the Internet as a whole can be a dangerous place, the web apps that are installed on your B2G phone will have to request specific permissions in order to get them. This is a very similar procedure to what has been seen already on Android and iOS, and many browsers today even have a simple permissions system for HTML5 accessing hardware. This security measure isn’t foolproof, and a hazard to a completely editable HTML5 existence is that someone who doesn’t know exactly what they are doing could find themselves in real trouble. It will be interesting to see how Mozilla approaches security when it comes time to release a device.
How do I play with it right now?
Mozilla has made it easy to take part in the B2G ecosystem. If you have an Android phone, you can actually compile and flash a pre-alpha ROM to your device. You’ll need to be sure you know what you are doing, and there’s not really a list of devices it is sure to work on yet, but the Samsung Galaxy S2 and the Samsung Nexus S are both devices that have been seen running B2G. When I tried to flash it on my Galaxy Nexus last night, I was greeted with a very lovely lock screen, but not much else worked.
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