Making HTML5 work with Firefox OS – a talk at CeBIT

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013 at 11:31 pm

I just got back from CeBIT in Germany which hosted the Mooseconf developer conference. My part of the show was to give a talk about Firefox OS and what it means to HTML5.

HTML5 means more than 'what works on iphone'

I gave that talk twice, once in the morning for a closed audience of developers and a repeat in the afternoon for the open part of the conference. The slides and notes are online and there is a screencast available on YouTube.

In the talk I reminisced about the time I had at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week showcasing Firefox OS to 57 different journalists. I especially remembered running into an interviewer who was very much a novice in the ways of the web. To make him understand I came up with a simile in my desperation explaining that “Firefox OS is the Volkswagen Beetle of smartphones”.

This was based on the original idea of the Beetle as a car that is affordable for everyone and to be a massive boost to the car-manufacturing industry.

The Volkswagen Beetle, officially called the Volkswagen Type 1 (or informally the Volkswagen Bug), is an economy car produced by the German auto maker Volkswagen (VW) from 1938 until 2003. With over 21 million manufactured[6] in an air-cooled, rear-engined, rear-wheel drive configuration, the Beetle is the longest-running and most-manufactured car of a single design platform, worldwide. Wikipedia

Firefox OS follows the same principles:

  • Its aim is to replace feature phones in emerging markets with HTML5 based phones that match the functionality of non-affordable or even locally available smartphones
  • The phones are based on the proven Firefox engine (Gecko), fully open and standard-proposed APIs and a Linux core (Gonk) that also powers Android
  • Parts of the beetle were interchangeable between its versions. That ensured that spare parts are easy to come by. Firefox OS is powered by and runs HTML5 applications. You can easily turn a current mobile-optimised web site into an app and get much better hardware access support with a few lines of JavaScript and a manifest file
  • The idea is to give HTML5 the hardware platform it deserves, not to be allowed to run on platforms that treat it as a thing that runs in browsers and is blocked from accessing the interesting parts of the device

In the rest of the talk I went through the different parts that make Firefox OS special. The ability to search for apps by content for example – enter the name of a band and you get Music, Video and Lyrics apps, enter “restaurant” and you get review apps. In essence we make app discovery and “try before you buy” as easy as surfing the web. This means we need you out there to spice up your “mobile friendly” pages and at least add local caching mechanisms.

I talked through the different levels of apps in Firefox OS and their rights to access the hardware and how to make even your hosted apps get access to the hardware by asking the user to do it with web activities. These are the same idea as web intents that Chrome had and now discontinued (for the moment).

I end with a listing of the resources to get you started and an explanation that the web as a platform is far from over. If you bet on HTML5, you build for now and all the other platforms (using for example phone gap) and the future. And with Firefox OS you reach a whole new market that now only could afford low-end Androids running the stock browser which is not the best HTML5 platform by a long shot.

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