A simple answer: No, we don't. However, asking whether we need another Os would be the wrong question to begin with. The right question would be: Does Mozilla need its own OS? In this case, the answer would be absolutely. In fact, why have they waited so long?
If you have read my previous columns, you may already know that I am a big proponent of web platforms and doubt that Mozilla will be able to survive with a browser that is threatened to be generally downgraded from the cornerstone of Internet usage to an app among hundreds of thousands of other (Internet-enabled) apps.
We are constantly evolving how we use the Internet, how we access information and what we do with it. Mozilla's main issue is that its core product, Firefox, has not evolved and has not shaped changes that would be beneficial to us or Mozilla. 2010 was a turning year for the web browser and caught Mozilla sleeping. While Mozilla was busy fixing Firefox and copying trends that emerged and were ignored in 2009 for a browser that was released almost half a year late, the competition evolved their browsers into platforms.
The result is that Google already has Chrome that just happens to be a browser today, but goes much more in the direction of a client cloud OS. Microsoft is making big steps to an Internet Explorer that is closely tied to Windows 8 and Microsoft's intention to make HTML5 web apps run especially well on IE9 and IE10. Firefox is already shut out of iOS. If Mozilla stands still, Firefox will become an app, in a best case scenario, and turn into an alternative that will require its loyal users to make a lot of compromises that will mean that Firefox will not be the best browser on any evolving platform. Conceivably, we could be talking about a slow and painful death here.
Escaping The Trap: Platformization
Market share data today indicate that Mozilla is caught between IE and Chrome, in a fight to survive as a company that balances corporate interests with those of an open web. The threat of becoming irrelevant is very real at this time as Chrome is gaining market share rapidly and is spreading out into different areas such as tablets and most likely smartphones as well. Whether Mozilla likes it or not, Firefox is caught in a trap that is pretty tight and could suffocate the browser, especially since we have been seeing Firefox play catch-up rather than innovate lately.
Mozilla has only one option to help Firefox survive: The browser needs to become a platform and shed its perception of being a browser. If there is a trend of Firefox being shut out of other platform efforts, the only opportunity for the future appears to be a platform that goes beyond a distributed and fragmented web store. Mozilla Boot-to-Gecko is a first step that seems to follow, once more, Google's approach with Chrome and Chrome OS, but maintains the open web principle that will keep Mozilla's image as the defender of the open Internet alive.
Is Mozilla Too Late?
You could argue that there is already a substantial cloud play via Chrome, Android, Windows (soon), iOS; and if you really don't like any of those, you still have options such as Blackberry, WebOS and Linux. Microsoft acknowledged that it has been late to the game and it is not difficult to see that WebOS is a fish dead in the water. RIM is gambling its users away, even if it once had a highly loyal and enthusiastic user base. So, what about Mozilla? Is Mozilla gambling as well and is it too late?
It is late, but perhaps not too late. There are still hundreds of millions of loyal Firefox users and there is still the brand recognition that anything-Firefox simply works and has a very high quality standard. Sure, Firefox has lost some of its appeal over the past 2 years, especially in the innovations space, but it is still a trusted brand that could easily spread out in neighboring product categories: a web-based Mozilla OS for smartphones and tablets that promotes an open platform as opposed to the closed market environments of iOS and Android could be an attractive alternative and could gain traction much faster than, for example, Windows could. We should not underestimate Mozilla's grass-roots marketing capabilities.
Quality versus Innovation?
Mozilla's big disadvantage in developing and pitching an OS is resources. The OS step will mean that Mozilla will have to compete with Google, Microsoft and Apple - not to mention the fact that it will have to get into the hardware business, at least to the degree as understanding today's and future hardware is concerned. Developing an OS for smartphones, tablets and future mobile devices, will require a lot more investment and manpower than Mozilla has at its disposal at this time.
If it cannot hire substantially more people, Mozilla will end up in compromises that will involve release time frame, updates, feature set, creativity as well as quality. Most likely, Mozilla could be caught in a trap between quality and innovation. While it needs innovative features, it cannot jeopardize its quality and very foundation of its reputation. The most interesting aspect of the Mozilla OS will be how the company can manage to distance itself from its rivals and still maintain the perception it has today. As far as features are concerned, just another OS that runs a phone won't be enough. Mozilla will need to deliver the entire package. My prediction: if Mozilla can create a working cloud OS (provided there is omnipresent connectivity) and has hardware like the Seabird phone in place, it can succeed.
The Mozilla OS pitch has been long overdue. It is the right move that could drive innovation for the industry and shape Mozilla's future in a positive way. If created with care and innovation in mind, it could do for the cloud OS what Firefox once did for the web browser.