If you had to pick a device that either had any native app you wanted other than a browser, or one that only had a browser and no other offline apps, which would you pick? Chances are, you’d pick the device with a browser. The internet’s a great place for reading, finding info, and social network, but it’s also many of our go-to way to stay productive and get entertainment. You can do anything in your browser, from playing Angry Birds to solving complicated integration problems in Wolfram Alpha.
Pretty soon, you might even be using your browser to dial phone numbers and take pictures, if Mozilla has its way. It’s working on an innovative browser-based phone OS called Boot to Gecko where everything you use in the whole device is coded in HTML5. It’s also working on a new cross-device apps marketplace to let you buy web-based apps that run and feel more like native apps.
Could something like this actually change the mobile app ecosystem?
Web apps: the original mobile app vision
Mobile apps are actually nothing new. The original Newton and Palm Pilot devices ran apps, as did earlier Blackberry, Windows Mobile, and even Java J2ME powered devices. Several years before the iPhone was released, prepaid mobile phone cards in Asia were advertising shortcodes to download games to basic Nokia phones.
Then, the iPhone came along, and the App Store changed everything. Right? Well, not exactly. The first iPhone didn’t have the App Store, and at the 2007 WWDC conference, Steve Jobs trumpeted the advantages of web apps as the way to add 3rd party apps to the iPhone. They created a special iPhone Web Apps site with a directory of mobile-centric web apps. The page looks dated now, but it advertises the magic of the iPhone as being built on multitouch and web apps.
The vision failed then, and the App Store eventually showed just how amazing native apps on a mobile device could be. But web apps on a smartphone could be much more viable today, with much faster mobile networks and better HTML5 tools to build apps that tie directly into your device’s hardware. Native apps are great, but they’re stuck on that one device and OS ecosystem. Increasingly, many native apps, such as the latest Facebook and Twitter apps, are really just UIWebView apps, web apps with a native wrapper. Now that web apps can tap more of your device’s hardware, and can even work offline with HTML5 local storage, why not go back to the drawing board and make web apps the next wave of mobile apps?
Can Mozilla disrupt the browser scene again?
Mozilla pulled off the original browser coup, as Firefox usurped the then-dominant IE6 and refueled standards based web development in the early 2000’s. Since then, Webkit-powered browsers such as Safari and Chrome have become the de facto standards on desktops, tablets, and smartphones, leaving Mozilla’s Firefox looking slow and dated. But then Mozilla got their mojo back, and started rapidly iterating Firefox on the desktop. They also released Firefox for Android, before Google had even gotten around to bringing Chrome to Android themselves.
Now, they’re trying to take the lead in mobile web app development with their new Mozilla Marketplace. At first glance, it sounds just like other app stores: you create an app, submit it, and can either list it for free or sell it with Mozilla charging a 30% commission on sales. It’s not the first online App Store, either: Google’s Chrome Web Store has been online with free and paid apps for over a year.
What’s different about Mozilla’s vision is their new Mobile Apps Labs project. Here, Mozilla has pulled together resources to help developers create top-notch apps for your desktop browser, as well as for your smartphone and tablet. You can make online or offline apps with web technology, sell them in the Mozilla Marketplace, and run them anywhere. On your desktop with Firefox, or on your Android smartphone in Firefox mobile. Best of all, they’re planning on letting these apps run like native apps, so you could, say, run Cut the Rope online directly from your native OS app launcher on your smartphone and desktop, without having a different app on each one. And, you will be able to launch all of your apps from an online dashboard, with a single-signin through Mozilla Persona that will keep you from having to manage accounts for every app.
With everything built on open web standards, it sounds like a great chance to spur on cross-platform web app development that will truly run everywhere. However, if it’s kept tied to the Firefox ecosystem, it won’t be much different than the Chrome Web Store, or native OS App Stores. What would be very interesting, though, would be if Mozilla opened the Mozilla Marketplace and Dashboard to work from any browser. That way, you could buy a web app in Chrome on your Windows netbook, use it on the go from Safari on your iPad with single-signin making it just as simple as using native apps, and then jump back into your app in one click in Firefox on an iMac in your office. That’s how normal web apps work, but Mozilla could bring the curated store and single-signin to the web to bring everything together. If this is how they take the Mozilla Marketplace going forward, it could be a very big deal for web apps on all platforms.
Wait: Let’s just make the web into a phone.
But if you can make cross-platform apps using web technology, why not make a whole mobile OS using web technology? That’s actually exactly what Mozilla is doing now. They have another new project, Boot to Gecko, that’s a Linux based mobile OS where everything you see is built with web tech. The dialer, the launch screen, apps, even the camera are all powered by web tech. Since all you’ll need to run is a core browser with HTML5 and CSS3 powered web (can we say, native web) apps, you can also potentially make much more affordable Boot to Gecko phones, enough so that Telefonica is predicting they’ll be 10 times cheaper than iPhones. If that means we’ll have $60 unlocked smartphones that look this nice, I’d be all for it.
This week at the Mobile World Congress, Mozilla has been showing off test devices running Boot to Gecko. The video below, via The Verge, shows the phone in action. It’s not running perfectly, but looks pretty nice as-is. Plus, when’s the last time you were able to look at the source code of your phone’s dialer? Now, imagine with that level of hardware integration, you could make a web app version of, say, Instagram, that let you take pictures, tweak them, and share them, all using web tech. Now, anyone who can make a modern website can make a mobile app. That would indeed be a breakthrough, and we’d be dying to get that level of web integration on all mobile OSes.
So, Mozilla has launched an effort to make cross-platform web apps that work on everything from tablets to smartphones to traditional PCs with single login, a solid marketplace, and a forward focus on offline web apps that work anywhere. They’re aiming to become the biggest App Store in town, thanks to the browser and web technology. Then, at the same time, they’ve jumped even deeper into the mobile ecosystem war with their own smartphone OS. What’s interesting is, none of it just seems like ideas being thrown around. Both are very viable strategies, and if they handle it correctly, Mozilla could become the leading online App Store for all browsers and devices, not just Firefox and Boot to Gecko devices. But, if they decide to stay tied to their own browsers, then there’s not much difference in their efforts and every other platform maker’s efforts to drive app development.
What is interesting is that web apps are, once again, being looked at as the future of mobile apps. Microsoft’s been focusing on web speed with Windows Phone 7, and both Apple and Android continue to give the web preeminence on their devices with cloud-powered voice search and notifications. Then, even Facebook has been trying to jumpstart mobile web app development on their platform. It’s a brave new day for mobile web apps, and we’re excited to see the future of what our mobile browsers can do.