Once upon a time there was a browser called Netscape…
Back in the days before the release of Windows 95, just as the public was discovering the Internet as an alternative to private networks such as Prodigy and CompuServe, Netscape was the bomb. In those days, Microsoft didn’t supply any method for surfing the Internet, so people visited their local Egghead store, or other software outlets, to buy a shrink wrapped version of Netscape on floppy disks, which opened up a whole new world to computer users.
Microsoft’s reaction? Just before the release of Windows 95, Bill Gates said words to the effect of “we’re not interested in the Internet. We’re just going to do what we’ve always done, which is produce a standalone operating system.” Mr. Gates soon changed his mind, however, and very soon Microsoft was building Internet Explorer into their operating system and offering it for free with the cost of admission into the Windows world.
Why the change of heart? Had the folks in Redmond seen the light and embraced the Internet? Hardly. Evidently someone whispered in Gates ear, making him aware of the fact that the Netscape browser could very easily morph into an operating system that could compete with MS DOS or Windows.
Internet Explorer eventually killed Netscape, which couldn’t compete with free. For a time, Internet Explorer was just about the only browser available, except to those who used Linux, BSD or Unix.
Netscape, of course, rose from the dead as the Mozilla Suite, which spawned Firefox and eventually gave birth to Firefox OS. In a weird and convoluted way, Firefox OS is the Netscape operating system that Mr. Gates feared almost twenty years ago.
When Firefox OS was first announced a couple of years back, hardly anybody gave it much chance of success. As a mobile operating system, the competition from Apple and Android seemed to be too much to overcome. Even Mozilla figured it would mainly be picked-up in third world countries as a low cost alternative.
However, Firefox OS has a couple of things going for it that the competition lacks. For one, it’s completely open, much more open than iOS and even more open than Android and Chrome. For two, it’s completely based on HTML5.
That last, the HTML5 integration, is most important and it’s behind the reason why Firefox OS isn’t just for phones anymore.
This week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Panasonic announced that the operating system will be used in a new smart TV. As LinuxGizmos pointed out, HTML5 is central to this decision.
“…Firefox OS will provide better interoperability with HTML5-enabled devices such as Firefox OS phones, and although they don’t mention it, other HTML5-based devices such as future Tizen phones. The well-honed support for HTML5 and other web technologies will also provide better integration with cloud services, including ‘personalized and optimized access to Web and broadcasting content and services through the Internet,’ says Panasonic. Specific features include multiple profiles for different TV viewers within a household.
Also at CES, Mozilla announced that the OS will begin appearing on more upscale phones and tablets, although the focus will remain on emerging markets and entry level phones.
None of this surprises me, not since I heard Jason Weathersby speak at the All Things Open conference in October. Jason works for Mozilla as a technical evangelist for Firefox OS. From the start of his presentation, it was obvious that the operating system wasn’t being ignored by the mobile industry, as many people had expected.
“Right now we have 20 mobile partners and six hardware providers…make it seven now, because LG released a phone in Brazil yesterday. So we have several phones. You can get the ZTE Open on eBay for, I don’t know, I think it’s like eighty dollars, maybe ninety dollars. They actually just opened it up so you can flash the phone, you can play with the phone. It’s unlocked…. Everything in it, including the operating system, is all HTML5 and open standards.”
Here’s why this is important. The Firefox OS design means that developers pretty much don’t have to work with anything other than HTML5 to develop apps for Firefox phones–or for anything else running Firefox OS.
“What makes an app for Firefox OS? Well, what a Firefox OS app is, is just a HTML based application. The only thing we add to it is a manifest file, which is just a JSON file and description. Where is the file? Where does the application sit? Give me some icons I can display on the phone…”
What could be simpler? What could be more open? There’s no walled garden here, as there is with iOS. It’s more open than Android, the reigning Linux mobile distro at the moment.
The browser-as-operating-system concept that frightened the folks in Redmond back in the Netscape days is finally here. Unlike Chrome OS, it’s not cloud based–the browser is used to run local as well as network apps.
If it’s already going to be on televisions and other devices, it’s only a matter of time before it’ll appear on laptops and desktops. If I were Microsoft, I’d find this to be yet another reason to worry.