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Mozilla Boot2Gecko: can the new HTML5 champion succeed where webOS failed?

[A new mobile operating system is born. Telefonica and Mozilla have teamed up to deliver Open Web Devices. The ambition is high: displace the Apple/Google duopoly and commoditize app ecosystems. But can they do better than earlier attempts like WebOS? VisionMobile business analyst Stijn Schuermans sheds light on the challenging road ahead for this new platform candidate.]

VisionMobile: Mozilla Boot2Gecko: The new HTML5 champion?

People say that I’m a dreamer, but I am not the only one.
John Lennon

Mozilla, the company behind Firefox (until recently the number two desktop browser) and top-5 mobile operator Telefonica are co-developing a new mobile operating system. The project is codenamed Boot2Gecko by Mozilla and devices running the OS are dubbed “Open Web Devices” by Telefonica. The goal is a phone that relies entirely on web technology and where all applications, from the dialler to games, are developed with HTML5.

At the MWC 2012 conference in Barcelona, Mozilla ran a demo of Boot2Gecko on a Samsung Galaxy II, a high-end smartphone. At the same conference, Telefonica showed the new operating system on a low-end reference design from Qualcomm, which will become available on low-cost smartphones at a sub-Android price point. Mozilla also announced the Mozilla Marketplace, an app store for web apps.

B2G Home screenOn the surface, this joint move by a major telco and a major Internet player makes a lot of sense. Mozilla and Telefonica are trying to disrupt the Apple/Google duopoly, starting from the low-end. By focusing on providing a good user experience on very low-end devices, Telefonica hopes to capture the emerging markets first. The telco plans to introduce direct-to-bill payments for mobile app purchases, as credit cards are not common in the emerging markets that the initiative targets.

As explained in Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, starting at the low end of the market is smart: the easiest way for Android device makers to protect their profitability is to leave the low margin devices to Open Web Devices and focus Android on higher-end devices, targeted at people who do have credit cards. This is the best way to disrupt Android. Google’s reaction will likely be lukewarm, as their interest is only in driving eyeballs to Google ads, which can be done perfectly from either platform.

A disruptive strategy like this provides Telefonica with the opportunity to give Google a taste of its own medicine. Telcos are under big pressure from the application ecosystems of Apple and Google, which now own the customer relationship and are pushing down the value of the carriers to dumb bit pipes. If telcos are not full participants in the application ecosystem, then why not commoditize apps entirely? For Telefonica, Open Web Devices are an attempt to reduce the power of the major platforms and their vertical application silos by moving app development and distribution to a more “neutral” web-based environment. If applications are primarily developed in a cross-platform way, the platform’s power weakens. Mozilla is an ideal partner for telcos to achieve this, being a fundamentally not-for-profit organization with a mission to keep the Internet open and free.

Mozilla and Telefonica are a good match in general for realising B2G as a competitor to Apple/Google; Mozilla can add the software foundations (APIs) and the developerecosystem around it, while Telefonica adds the OEM deals, monetisation and app store.

On paper, Boot2Gecko could be the new web-based platform that succeeds where webOS failed; it is open source (unlike what webOS used to be), it has multiple OEM partners interested, it is backed by a top-5 telco and it comes at a time when HTML5 has technically evolved and enjoys widespread industry support. Indeed, B2G could be the champion that leads HTML5 from being an enabling technology to achieving full platform status. The reality is that a lot needs to be done for that to happen.

In essence, the elements behind Telefonica’s Open Web Devices are not enough to win the hearts and wallets of consumers and developers:
– Openness is a way to reduce developer marketing costs, but adds little value for end users.
– Web is not a synonym for better user experience or the platform with which to appeal to games developers.
– Devices running a web-based OS is a valid way to compete with Apple/Google, but a very expensive one, given that billions of dollars will have to be invested by Telefonica and handset OEMs before the OS reaches maturity and has a sizeable addressable market. Note that Microsoft is paying Nokia circa $1 billion a year to buy its way into an addressable market.

For Boot2Gecko to succeed, it needs to compete with the other mobile platforms on all five key ingredients:
1. Software foundations, a rich set of APIs with managed fragmentation. Telefonica has already contributed a lot of the device API glue code to Boot2Gecko (based on the carrier’s earlier work within WAC). However, competing with iOS, Android and WP7 is a major long-term effort.
2. A developer ecosystem, to spur innovation and cater to diverse use cases. There are millions of web developers out there, who need to be “onboarded” onto B2G, i.e. on its specific APIs and app distribution system.
3. Devices & distribution, i.e. a large addressable market of 10s of millions of phones sold each year. As a top-5 telco, Telefonica is a major success factor here, but needs to translate OEM intentions (notably from LG who’s an early partner) into project investments and volume commitments. A positive factor here is that B2G is running on the same reference designs and based on the same kernel and core libraries – and so, quicker to bring to market than Windows Phone.
4. Monetisation. Monetisation is essential to the creation of a healthy developer ecosystem – and Telefonica intends to provide carrier billing.
5. Retailing. It is still unclear which partner will be responsible for providing  the on-device storefront, retailing and merchandising of apps to end users.

To their credit, Telefonica and Mozilla are progressing fast with Boot2Gecko. The first experiments started in October 2010 and the project really kicked off in March 2011. The phone demonstrated in February 2012 wore all the key core apps (dialler, phonebook, inbox, etc.) and a UI experience that is claimed to be better than the lowest-end Android handsets. The handset demonstrated by Telefonica runs on the same hardware as the original iPhone 3G, but can be sold at 1/10th of the price according to our sources.

This said, other contenders to the HTML5 platform crown, like Facebook Platform and Google Chrome, are already far more advanced in creating a viable ecosystem. Both Facebook and Chrome (the browser, the OS, but especially the web store) have already amassed substantial traction across screens and have solved at least some of the distribution, retailing and monetization challenges. The Mozilla Marketplace is a step in the right direction, but the organization has a lot of catching up to do.

Moreover, there is an obvious and much cheaper substitute to these attempts to create web-app platforms that Telefonica and other telcos need to consider, if their goal is to disrupt the Apple/Google duopoly. Cross-platform development tools [see our full report – www.CrossPlatformTools.com] make it much easier for developers to reach multiple platforms and flatten the competitive landscape of Apple and Google’s ecosystems.

In summary, Telefonica and Mozilla are making a very serious attempt at disrupting the current iOS/Android duopoly of application platforms. They do well to focus on low-end devices and to attack the link between apps and the platforms they run on. But using HTML5 technology or being open is not enough. Mozilla, in particular, has to prove that it can draw in web developers to this new platform and create a vibrant ecosystem. Telefonica not only needs to get OEMs enthusiastic, but also committed to produce phones in volume. Finally, it is unclear how this initiative can outrun the competition, Facebook and Chrome or whether Telefonica and Mozilla should instead invest in the alternative approach of cross-platform development tools.

– Stijn

Want to know more? VisionMobile offers deep insights into the HTML5 ecosystem and how it stands to disrupt the Apple/Google duopoly. Check out the latest research note in our CEO Trendwatch service (send an email to stijn@visionmobile.com for access), or our Mobile Innovation Economics workshop.

  • Anbei
    • Stijn

      When WebOS was initially acquired by HP and used in devices like the HP Touchpad, it was not open, or only in a very limited sense. HP only decided to make WebOS open source after the commercial failure of the Touchpad. To my knowledge, there are few or no other major backers to the open source project, and without those it is unlikely that WebOS will become a successful platform and ecosystem.

  • bethel95

    Open webOS is a mature mobile OS with a superior UI and a full app and data-syncing ecosystem and a sizeable, talented, and enthusiastic developer community. The newly-released Enyo cross-platform app framework means expanded markets for all Enyo-based webOS apps. All that's lacking is a hardware partner and performance optimization for the resulting devices (which is where HP really fell down). The question for Telefonica and Mozilla is whether they can afford the time it will take to continue creating an inferior wheel when the Open webOS alternative will be fully released over next few months?

    • Stijn

      Thanks for you comment. I agree with you that the lack of a hardware partner is one of webOS's main challenges at the moment – one that they definitely need to overcome if they want to have a chance in the market.

      Open webOS's superior functionality and UI are not necessarily a problem for Boot2Gecko. Will webOS compete in the high end (against Apple), in the mid end (against Android) or in the low end (against Boot2Gecko)?

  • Balaji

    WebOS or Geeko is definitely going to succeed. Its the future of mobile. Users will be highly relieved of the expensive hardwares needed to run their apps.

  • Anony Mole

    Code name "Boot2Gecko" – great. Now, what's going to be the real name?

    GeckOS ?
    MozOS ?
    MobMoz ?
    GeckoMo ?

  • http://www.crowdfundingbank.com Peter

    Who cares about WebOs – it's dead….

    I am happy to hear the Mozilla is joining the mobile space – great new!

  • Helio Perroni Filho

    Of course, mobile operators already have a web technologies-based platform with which to fight Apple and Google. It's the Wholesale Application Community (WAC): it's got a Javascript API, a W3C-compatible application packaging model, an infrastructure for operator-local app stores, the support of a string of carriers, model manufacturers and IT companies – and is going nowhere but down.

    Did you know that Android is, on paper, the product of the Open Handset Alliance? That's a consortium of more than 80 companies – yet Google seems to be the only one actually working for its progress, while the others do little more than port the software to half-baked reference hardware and slap their logos on top of the things.

    Technology is not the problem, lack of compromise is. Players in the mobile industry will gather to draw up (and sometimes even implement) standards all the time; getting any one of them to promote its use afterwards is another matter entirely. The whole mobile industry is terribly inertial: that's how they got driven off to the borders of their own market by Apple and Google to begin with. That's why WAP languished for years until being crushed under the rise of the mobile web, why WAC is stillborn, and why IMS will ultimately prove irrelevant.

    The reason Boot2Gecko just might succeed is not technology, Telefonica's support or the increasing marginalization of carriers. The best thing it's got going for it is Mozilla's role as the driving force behind the platform. Just as with Android and Google, they've got the will to keep promoting it long after other involved parties have lost interest (by experience, some 5 seconds after the release of version 1.0).

    If Mozilla can attract developer mindshare and drag the carriers and product manufacturers to provide consistent support, then Boot2Gecko may realize the vision of a web application platform that goes all the way back to WAP. Of course history is against it; but it's the best chance we've got so far.

  • David C

    I really hope they can make it happen, but really can you see it eating into Apple or Android ? Even MS and Nokia are find it tough going and nobody could call these two lightweights.
    Nobody is going to touch Apple thats for sure. Android is more vulnerable but expecting OEMs and developers to embrace another OS is going to be a very hard sell indeed.
    Sorry guys, just can't see it happening , BlueVia was DOA , WAC is a joke, and the carriers are floundering in the mud wrestling with the Smartphone eco system.
    Is Boot2Gecko the answer ?, lets see .

  • ChristiAN

    First, end users don't really care how their services are built. Be it as an (native) app or a web app. Secondly, for MozillaOS to become a successful environment they have to become a serious contester in the device game. Third, does a mobile web platform like Mozilla OS benefit developers? Only if they get good scale/reach or if ROI is greater than what it is for (native) apps…

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