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Mozilla Builds Smartphone OS Using Android Kernel

On Monday, Mozilla, the developer behind the popular Firefox web browser, revealed preliminary plans for a universal-platform mobile OS called Boot to Gecko (or B2G). It will feature the Linux-based Android kernel and device drivers beneath a custom user interface and application stack based on Gecko, the Firefox and Thunderbird HTML rendering engine.

Although the team already has a demo up and running, the project is still in its "infancy" as Mozilla research engineer Andreas Gal states – bits and pieces still remain in their heads, others aren’t fully explored. That said, don't expect to see the new OS anytime soon, and don't expect it to be a Firefox-themed OS either.

"We want to take a bigger step now, and find the gaps that keep web developers from being able to build apps that are --- in every way --- the equals of native apps built for the iPhone, Android, and WP7," Gal said.

Ultimately the goal is to create an HTML5-driven web environment where HTML5 apps can offer the same functionality as traditional apps. Like Google’s Chrome OS, B2G will be a complete standalone OS entirely dependent on the open web. Thus, Mozilla will provide a set of B2G APIs for building HTML5-based apps that access device telephone, SMS, camera, USB, Bluetooth, NFC and other features.

"We will do this work in the open, we will release the source in real-time, we will take all successful additions to an appropriate standards group, and we will track changes that come out of that process," Gal said. "We aren't trying to have these native-grade apps just run on Firefox, we're trying to have them run on the web."

Mike Shaver, VP of engineering, later added that Mozilla will be looking for both inspiration and collaboration from interested developers and contributors. He also made it clear that the new OS will focus on the handheld, tablet and mobile experience.

Although the team chose the Linux-based Android kernel and device drivers because (theoretically) they're compatible with existing hardware, the team intends to use as little of Android as possible. "Really, we want to use the kernel + drivers, plus libc and ancillary stuff," Shaver said. "It's not likely that we'll use the Android Java-wrapped graphics APIs, for example.  It's nice to start from something that's known to boot and have access to all the devices we want to expose.  Maybe that's not the right direction, though, so if someone wants to explore another direction that'd be just fine."

Currently the B2G project is divided into four components: creating the new web APIs for building the apps; building a privilege model so that new features are "safely exposed" to pages and applications; creating a low-level substrate for an Android -compatible device; and choosing to either port or build apps to prove out and prioritize the power of the system.

But will using Android as a building block be the right thing to do given that Android vendors are currently facing legal IP issues with Microsoft and Apple? IP activist and blogger Florian Mueller thinks the B2G team will face the same wrath.

"Android currently faces the worst intellectual property issues any software ever had in the history of this industry," he told ZDNet. "Using any Android building blocks seems risky, but Mozilla is also unlikely to safely walk through the patent minefield with any code of its own. It probably won’t be able to give assurances to device makers either way."

To read more about the upcoming Mozilla OS, head here.