Mozilla's on a mission: it wants to sort out the world of smartphones, enabling web-based apps to benefit from the same features as native apps.
The ambitious project is called Boot to Gecko, and sounds like Mozilla's planning an entire mobile operating system.
That raises all kinds of important questions, so we asked Mike Shaver, Mozilla's vice president of technical strategy, to share his thoughts.
As Shaver explains, there's a growing gap between what web-based applications can do and what native applications can do: there are features that web apps can't access and proprietary APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) that are only available to platform-specific developers.
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Mozilla would like to change that. "We believe that the next frontier for web applications is full device integration, so that web developers have the same capabilities as those building for OS-specific stacks," Shaver told TechRadar.
"Boot To Gecko is intended to identify those missing device capabilities and other application needs, and design standardised solutions for app developers to use."
That sounds like a pretty good description of HTML5, but Mozilla wants to offer developers more than just HTML5 features.
"B2G would offer mobile users all the power of HTML5, extended with device capabilities like Bluetooth and SMS, a richer capability model for interaction with the filesystem, and a way to tie these 'native HTML5 apps' together," Shaver says.
"The intent is very much that B2G leads to improved capabilities for the web platform, not that it replace HTML5 or related tech in any way. Many of these new capabilities will also make sense in desktop browsers, and we look forward to seeing them there as well."
All together now
While Boot To Gecko is designed to address the shortcomings of current mobile browsers, Shaver doesn't see other browsers as targets; Mozilla wants other browser makers to start their photocopiers.
"Ideally, the technology pioneered or refined in B2G will make its way into all mobile browsers, so that enhanced open web applications can be great regardless of operating system or device," he says. "We look forward to working with other OS and browser developers on standards activities and even implementations."
One criticism of Boot To Gecko is that Mozilla might be punching above its weight here: after all, it took the might of Google to turn mobile Linux into the all-conquering Android.
Can Boot To Gecko scale without a similarly deep-pocketed partner to get the mobile manufacturers and carriers on board? Shaver seems unconcerned. "B2G is designed to build on the success of the web, and given the early stage of the project it could reach users in many forms," he says. "We're certainly interested in working with OEMs and others who share our vision of even greater success for web-based applications."
Web apps and mobile security
Desktop browsers have made increasing use of sandboxing - keeping the browser in a kind of walled compound, separate from the operating system - since the web became a vector for all kinds of exploits and malware, but a system such as Boot to Gecko is going in the other direction by giving the browser more access to the phone hardware, whether that's its camera, its USB ports, its GPS chip or any other component that web apps might find useful.
"It absolutely raises security issues," Shaver admits, "and they're ones that we're taking very seriously." As he points out, "Installing applications on a mobile device right now raises similar security issues" - although on some platforms apps are vetted for security issues and pulled from the marketplace if they don't conform - and Mozilla is "looking at ways to improve on those existing models."
So is Boot To Gecko a whole new platform? Shaver says no. "Boot To Gecko is definitely not designed to be another platform," he says. "It's a project to extend what developers can do with the web, especially in the context of mobile devices, and to do so in a way that leads to interoperable standards. Just as with HTML5, ES5, CSS3 and other web technology it will reach different browsers and different operating systems at different times, but the pace of web platform development gives us confidence that good web technology can reach a lot of people very quickly."
The vision is to work across multiple platforms, not in opposition to them. "We don't want Boot To Gecko to lead to applications that only run atop Boot To Gecko, or that only run in Firefox," Shaver says.
"That's an important difference between what we're doing and proprietary mobile stacks today. We don't want a competitive advantage for Mozilla. We want a competitive advantage for the web."
To find out more about Boot To Gecko, check out the Mozilla Wiki.