The question of whether the market can support another mobile OS is different from the one that asks if it needs another mobile OS. Yet another question is, which appears to have been answered by the impressive list of operator titans that have pledged support for Mozilla’s new Firefox OS, does the industry want another OS?
The answer is “yes”, but there is a huge difference between want and need and Mozilla is about to get schooled on economic principles 101.
It’s true the lead that Android and iOS currently has is too great to overcome, but how much does that really matter? At face value, quite a bit. The investment required to build and bring a mobile OS to market is anything but trivial, and the industry is littered with a heap of platforms that seemingly had promise, but were only added to the heap in the end. In no particular order, Palm OS, ALP, Limo, Maemo, Moblin, Meego, webOS, and the market’s attritional ways is also taking care of Symbian, likely Bada and eventually Blackberry down the road as RIM transitions to its new QNX-based Blackberry10. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Firefox OS doesn’t suffer the same fate, which leads to a new question, what good can come of this?
Beyond the potential of powering very capable smartphones at sub-$100 price points, the industry support that Firefox OS is building gives it the potential of being a credible evangelist for HTML5 development. Performance of HTML5 applications on most platforms is often frustrating and it’s hardly used for any applications thought remotely critical. However, the new OS allows HTML5 applications to reach the core API which means all the top tier applications that smartphones have typically been known for, including browsing, messaging, gaming, and voice calling can now all be developed with HTML5.
The language has the potential to transform mobile devices and give the Web a more natural feel on phones. To further make this point, realize that Apple led the market in innovation of HTML5 features in its Safari browser. Now realize that nearly 66% of all mobile browsing traffic as of June 2012 has come from Apple’s Safari browser, while just 19% comes from the Android browser, according to NetApplications’ July report. Now factor in Android’s 63% share of the worldwide market compared to Apple’s 22% and you begin to appreciate the impact that HTML5 can have on the user experience.
Granted, Android’s fragmentation from allowing partners to make independent decisions on UI’s, hardware specs, and third-party browsers, has made it difficult for it to support HTML5. But since the mobile industry tends to move forward by companies matching the capabilities as others innovate, it is possible that Firefox OS doesn’t have to be wildly successful to have a positive impact on the industry. We may look back and realize its real value was in how it pushed HTML5 forward for all.