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Mozilla Wants a Browser to Control Your Phone

Engineers are creating a browser-based system that would make a smart phone’s operating system superfluous.

The makers of the Firefox browser are trying to create a mobile browser powerful enough to run your smart phone.

The Mozilla Foundation’s Boot 2 Gecko project is part of a shift toward software that runs largely on the Web—instead of on the device itself—for all sorts of tasks, and on all sorts of gadgets.

Boot 2 Gecko is similar to Google’s browser-based Chrome OS, an operating system built into the browser. But the Mozilla effort could have a broader impact, by changing the way all Web browsers function, not just Mozilla’s.

Mozilla engineers want to significantly expand the things browsers can do. They want the browser to access the contacts list and other data on a device, and connect to the camera and other hardware. The final step will be to replace the phone’s operating system itself. The effort will start, naturally enough, with Firefox (Gecko is the name of the rendering engine at the heart of the Firefox browser).

If it succeeds, the Boot 2 Gecko project will move many of the functions now carried out by mobile operating systems—Android, Apple’s iOS, WebOS, MeeGo, and others—into the browser itself. Basic phone functions like the dialer would be recoded in JavaScript so they could run in the browser. In time, almost all of the functions of a conventional operating system could run in the browser, in code cached on the phone and updated from the Web when necessary. Ultimately, say those involved, this trend would eliminate the need for proprietary operating systems, replacing them all with open standards that could run on any mobile browser.

“On the Web, an application is accessible to everyone, regardless of operating system. This should be the same with applications on phones,” says Mike Shaver, Mozilla’s vice president of technical strategy.

It isn’t the first time that someone has tried to build an open-source Web-based OS. Ben Francis, founder of the Webian browser-based OS project, sees the Mozilla team’s efforts as complementary to his own. While the Webian project focuses on “the user experience for a device dedicated to browsing the Web,” the Mozilla team is pushing for new capabilities to be built into Web browsers—such capabilities are already the backbone of many sophisticated websites.

Ironically, underneath the hood of Mozilla’s  prototype Boot 2 Gecko platform is the core of one of the platforms it hopes to supplant—Android. As the Mozilla team outlined on the developer forum for the project, it needed a basic, stable kernel on which to build the platform to avoid spending too much time simply getting the prototype to boot up.

Ultimately, contends Boot 2 Gecko developer Mike Shaver, the project is about developing standards that will run in any browser, on any core software, and on any hardware—rendering the choice of prototype platform irrelevant.

Boot 2 Gecko also differs from most mobile platforms in that it is not designed to give any one company an advantage. “That’s an important difference between what we’re doing and proprietary mobile stacks today,” says Shaver. “We don’t want a competitive advantage for Mozilla, we want a competitive advantage for the Web.”

As Mozilla contributor Robert Kaiser pointed out in the initial discussion following the announcement of the project, the end result may not look anything like a conventional browser.

“It’s likely that [mobile Web apps] would run in something that didn’t have all the usual trappings of a browser, but the underlying technology would be the same,” Shaver wrote.

Truly open Web technologies in this mold would have another advantage over native ones—endless customizability. Don’t like your phone dialer? Just download a different one. It’s easy to see how some makers of mobile devices wouldn’t like that. “I expect some heel-dragging from those who stand to benefit from closed proprietary systems,” says Francis.

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