King Kong vs. Mozilla

By Mark Watson

I think it’s fair to say that Microsoft’s stand at Mobile World Congress 2012 did not reflect their mobile ambitions. For the benefit of those of you who weren’t there or couldn’t be bothered looking for it (or were distracted by the dancing girls nearby), I can tell you that it was small relative to those of the other mobile OS players, sparsely furnished, and very, very blue. There were a few handsets—running the low-spec-friendly Tango version of Windows Phone—on display, but most of the stand was given over to a kind of stage. Microsoft’s Barnum, Balmer and Bailey-esque strategy for drawing a crowd and getting some good PR for Windows Phone at the show was to challenge delegates to see if they could perform certain tasks on their handsets faster than a Microsoft representative could perform the equivalent tasks on a handset running Windows Phone. Microsoft have given the challenge, which they also ran at CES in January, a Twitter hashtag inspired title: #SmokedByWindowsPhone (I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that the phrasing could, with a little effort from determined campaigners, be made to backfire on them). Users able to outpace Windows Phone in front of the small-ish crowds at the MWC stand were rewarded with €100 for their skills/hardware.

While Microsoft was busy smoking most (but not all) comers with its about-to-be-abandoned OS of fury down in Hall 1, Mozilla—they of Firefox fame—were demonstrating their own mobile operating system in Hall 7 (aka the ‘App Planet’). The interesting thing about Mozilla’s Gecko OS is that it is built in a way that makes it odds-on favourite to smoke Windows Phone in every single department. Here’s why (this is the science bit):

Traditionally, operating systems have been founded on a layer of code which maps software to hardware; this layer is made up of a core (or ‘kernel’) and a bank of APIs. On top of this layer of code is another layer which generates the user interface – any applications run on top of this graphical layer. Both Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS, and the Mac’s OSX are based around a UNIX kernel called Mach, which came out of Carnegie Mellon in the ‘80s and which was previously used by NeXT (ironically, the primary designer of MACH, Rick Rashid, ended up in charge of research  at Microsoft). Google’s Android OS has a Linux kernel. iOS is essentially a bunch of APIs on top of a proprietary version of UNIX, an operating system which dates back to the ‘70s. Android is essentially a bunch of fairly sparse/joyless UI capabilities on top of Linux (itself a ‘reinterpretation’ of UNIX).

Click on the image to see a demo of Mozilla's Boot To Gecko Complete Demo

Gecko also has a Linux kernel, but Mozilla have made the user interface layer out of Firefox, the standards-based web browser which brought them to prominence in 2004 (and which would itself usually live in the app layer). The Firefox-based environment has been created using HTML5, Javascript and CSS and supports apps also written in these popular programming languages. That makes for a Windows Phone-smokingly fast OS experience (Engadget’s reporter saw the device boot in 2 seconds) as there’s no bloated UI layer arbitrating every process. In terms of looks, the video at the end of this link suggests that the visuals are a lot better than those offered by Android and on a par with those offered by Windows Phone and iOS. More importantly, the fact that Mozilla has managed to create an entire user interface replete with high-functioning app and media capabilities in HTML5 suggests that ‘web’ and ‘native’ implementations are closer in terms of benefits and functionality than has ever been apparent before.

HTML5 is being engineered with a view to retaining the ease-of-implementation and relatively low costs associated with web development while increasing the potential functionality/capabilities of apps delivered via the language. The launch of Gecko shows that this is a viable ambition. Mozilla’s OS has a long way to go if it wants to grab market-share, nurture a vibrant content ecosystem, and do all those things which grown-up platforms do, but its appearance at MWC 2012 is an ominous sign for the enterprise app providers out there who have put all of their eggs into the ‘native’ basket.

N.B. The Linux ancestry which Gecko shares with Android means that tech-savvy, devil-may-care Android users “with unlocked bootloaders” are already able to install it on their handsets; the rest of us will have to wait for Telefonica and Deutsche Telekom to release their phones based on the new OS later this year/in Q1 2013.



Mark Watson the former EVP of Technology & Engineering at Antenna and former CEO of Volantis Systems, during which time he blogged frequently for Mobile Masters. 

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