My take on webOS and Mozilla

December 11, 2011

HP announced yesterday that they’re going to open source webOS. No matter what one may think of webOS (or HP), this is great news. It’s an opportunity, but it remains to be seen what HP and others will do with it.

Several people I’ve spoken to or chatted with are wondering whether (or even suggesting that) Mozilla should embrace webOS. On the surface, it makes a lot of sense. “webOS” is about the “web”, right?

Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. webOS is a technologically interesting stack, but it’s just a stack. Sure, it happens to be one that is very portable and might have a low entry barrier for developers. But WebKit and V8 do not a web make. And an app written in JS does not a web app make.

Enter Mozilla’s Boot to Gecko (B2G) project. On the surface, this too sounds like just another stack: you’re booting into Gecko instead of WebKit — so what’s the difference?

Well, B2G’s goal is about moving the entire web forward to a place where it can run a mobile phone — not run on a mobile phone but run the phone. Sure, we’re using Gecko to do this, but this is just a means to an end. Just like most of our other efforts that drive the web forward also use Gecko and Firefox as a carrier pigeon. Mozilla’s mission, after all, is to move the internet and the web forward, not make a browser or a rendering engine.

So what does driving the web rather than just particular stack forward mean? It means introducing and standardizing APIs to control just about every bit of hardware on modern phones, from the various radios to the cameras and storage devices. The idea is to level the playing field: there’s not just one stack and there’s not just one vendor in control. Just like on the web.

As a result, carriers, OEMs, and most importantly users, will be able replace and/or improve bits of the stack as they see fit and there’s also absolutely no red tape that keeps them from doing so (except for broadcasting/networking regulations, of course). This is quite different from, say, Android. It also nicely illustrates the difference between “open source” and “open”. Android is just one of those two, and it remains to be seen what webOS will be like.

I think herein lies webOS’s opportunity. The mobile landscape already has enough red tape stacks and it’s starting to disenfranchise people, and I’m sure companies too, at a large scale. If one could get anybody engaged in something new, it would be them. But not with another proprietary stack. With one that’s open.

If HP wants to give webOS the web credentials it doesn’t deserve right now, they should join Mozilla at the standards table and make webOS a “Boot to WebKit”. Competition and choice is what made the web great. Let’s do it again. And again.

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4 Responses to “My take on webOS and Mozilla”

  1. pd Says:

    Surely the world war III of patent litigation is the immovable mountain that will prevent anything webOS can offer from being successful? Isn’t this just another WebM scenario times 100? Just think of the lawyers licking their lips at the thought of some sorry entity with enough money to target adopting webOS and therefore launching endless court cases.

    This is undoubtedly the only reason HP are giving away webOS: they can’t be bothered releasing it in a product because as soon as they do, they’re consigning themselves to at least a decade of litigation.

    In this sense the open sourcing of webOS is a classic example of the failure of open source: if you can’t make money by directly selling code, give it away as open source.

  2. Zack Says:

    Having used a webOS phone (the original Pre) for some time, the thing webOS has going for it is not the technology stack, but the UX. They got a whole bunch of basic user interaction aspects right in ways that neither Android or iPhone did.

    … and that, B2G can and should mercilessly mine for ideas!

  3. jrbrusseau Says:

    -“It also nicely illustrates the difference between “open source” and “open”.”

    “Open” isn’t a real term. At least it has no solid dedicated meaning like the term “open source”. It just means whatever the person/company using it wants it to mean today. At best there are degrees and categories of “open” as indicated by the Open By Rule Benchmark or the Open Governance Index. But at their core these are all really subjective.

    -“Sure, we’re using Gecko to do this, but this is just a means to an end.”

    I find it funny that every time B2G is brought up someone in Mozilla has to explain how it’s not about using Gecko over Webkit. If using Gecko is just a means to an end then why use it instead of say.. Webkit?

    -“The idea is to level the playing field: there’s not just one stack and there’s not just one vendor in control”

    Isn’t the web basically just one stack? Essentially, you want to replace all the exiting stacks with one open standard stack. The red tape is the standardization process and legacy support.

    • philikon Says:

      Sure, open is hard to measure and it’s hard to explain (“it’s open source, right? what more do you want?”). I didn’t intend to make a quantitative statement at all, merely a qualitative. And there are many indicators that support this point of view, Android’s belated and hardly community engaging code dumps is just one.

      As far as Gecko is concerned, just because the mission isn’t about the rendering engine doesn’t mean Mozilla can’t prefer one and invest more in one than in others. Mozilla uses Gecko because it believes that it’s the best way to serve users and the mission (think influence in development processes). It’s as simple as that.

      Re: web being one stack: with the web users have the choice of different browsers. Developers can target many different platforms with the same software. Sure, there’s the standardization process and legacy support, but I take this transparency over a single stack dictatorship any day. Competition can be messy, but it’s good.


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