Christian Heilmann

Mobile World Congress, Boot to Gecko and the unknown beast called HTML5

Sunday, March 4th, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Last week I was a bit more silent than usual (some said I appeared to be human rather than a news/tech/kittens/puppies feed). The reason was that I was at mobile world congress in Barcelona, Spain and got roped into doing booth duty on top of my presentation there.

Mothereffing Boot to Gecko!

The main reason though was that I finally got my hand on a boot to gecko phone and not the best horses or king’s men could stop me from showing it to anyone who was even marginally interested.

The presentation that made the rounds was the one on Engadget:

So before going back to my MWC experience, here are the quick points about this:

  • Boot to Gecko is a fully open phone stack
  • It has a Linux core and its Gaia interface is written in HTML5 – so there is no need to learn any Java or C++ to write apps for it or customise the OS itself
  • The phone features a full telephony and messaging stack
  • It also runs WebGL with 60fps smoothly
  • By the end of the year Telefonica want to release a phone running it and we are in talks with others to do the same (I am off to Hannover on Wednesday for Cebit for that)
  • As the OS is incredibly light-weight it boots in 12 seconds:

In other words: it kicks ass and it allows me as a web developer to build things for phones with the same technologies that I build web sites in. The interesting thing was that this option doesn’t transpire that easily to mobile developers.

HTML5 concerns of mobile developers and entrepreneurs

Whilst showing off mobile Firefox on various tablets and mobile phones I got a lot of feedback and questions about HTML5 from people. They were incredibly interesting as we assume as web developers that mobile HTML5 development is easier – as you know the browser that is in use if you target a certain phone. However, I realised that web development and mobile development are still very much different worlds. We had the same experience during a discussion round at the WIP Jam. I was lucky enough to partner with Wolfram Kriesing of uxebu to answer the concerns of mobile developers. Some of those made it into my talk.

  • When is HTML5 ready for use? This was a very big one. Coming from a world of IDEs, SDKs and builds this is a predictable question but as web developers we know that our tech is constantly moving (I am writing a big post/talk on that soon)
  • How can I protect my code? A common concern was that HTML5/CSS and JS are open and can be simply copied. So a lot of entrepreneurs wondered how they can stop people from doing that. My advice was to go to the Android store and search for “Angry” and see that the same happens in native code. The energy you put into protecting your code just to find it ripped you might as well put into creating a great user experience and let your lawyers worry about plagiarism.
  • Do you need to be online to use HTML5 games? It was amazing how unknown the local storage options of HTML5 are. Again, I showed the native Angry Birds seasons which loads each and every level and thus is pointless offline. It is not a problem of the technology, it means you implemented it wrongly.
  • What tools do I use to build HTML5? Another big one. Whilst as web developers we are very happy to go into the code in a text editor, it seems alien to a lot of developers out there. Which means that tooling is a very necessary task for us HTML5 aficionados right now and it is cool to see uxebu and cloud9ide going there.

Reacting to question and presenting on HTML5

During the WIP Jam at MWC Joe Stagner and me gave a 1.5 hour “workshop” on HTML5 and sat on the table all day answering questions (and handing out a lot of shirts and stickers). I recorded our talk and – despite a few technical issues with the projector and the room giving a good impression of the boiler room of the Titanic (32 degrees) it went really well:

Slides for HTML5 and friends

Noteworthy is that by using Mortadelo y Filemón in my slides, I made quite a few people happy, so happy actually that @martuishere got me a copy of one of their books (which I had in German when I grew up).

The rocky road ahead

All in all we have quite a rocky road ahead of us if we want to get the mobile world to embrace HTML5. A lot of it is not really technical issues but have to do with attitude and environments. In the past we were lucky as web developers as nobody understood and cared what we did. Now everybody wants to play in our sandbox but they expect laser guided shovels and shiny clean sand that smells of roses rather than getting their fingers dirty diving deep. A big one was comparing HTML5 to native code – something that is limiting web development a lot. Of course a native app is snappier. A formula one car is faster than a hovercraft, but it fails miserably on water. Great web apps should change and adapt to their environments – something that is very uncommon in native code. Funnily enough only developers played with B2G and said it is a bit laggy. Users of phones and managers didn’t realise any difference – actually they asked if it is a windows phone as our Gaia app icons are rectangular rather than rounded squares.

The conference as a whole

All in all I dreaded the conference. It is an overpriced, hyped sales show complete with everything I hate about conferences: booth babes who smile and show a lot of flesh rather than knowledge, tons of printed out marketing material to throw away a day later, amazingly stupid taglines (as reported by The Register with my favourite being “Applying Thought”), bad catering (I more or less lived on omelette sandwiches), the whiff of lots and lots of money being spent all over the place, and a big pile of business cards for me to wade through which could have been quick emails we could have sent each other from our fancy phones (they do have that feature).

That said, some of the people there really made it worth while – most of them I knew beforehand, but I met a lot of locals that I will so come back to.

I love working for Mozilla

The main thing that made it worth while for me to go were my colleagues in Mozilla. The B2G and Mobile Firefox team did not sleep at all getting the demos and the system ready, everybody was switched on 100% of the time and happy to help each other and the people not at the conference did a grand job blogging our exploits (or linking to the open tech we talked about), monitoring the press and answering comments. It was exhausting, taxing and a lot of work to do, but it worked out and it is incredible to see that a conference I thought Mozilla would be very alien at and belittled as “those web guys” got rocked to its core by Boot to Gecko and suddenly a lot more people start believing when we say “the web is the platform”.

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