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Could Mozilla be a Cloud Handset Powerhouse?

We think of smartphones and we think of Apple, the glamour leader, Android/Google the market-share leader, or Microsoft the perpetually hopeful. Now maybe we have to think of another name, the Mozilla Foundation. Their newest Firefox OS could be a game-changer in the handset space, and even have an influence on the cloud as a whole.

Smartphones introduced what might be the key concept for the online world and the underpinning of our coming mobile-empowered age--the "app". An app is a kind of shorthand link from an icon to an experience, typically fulfilled in large part by a hosted service and represented by a URL. By shortcutting the navigation process, an app makes it possible for a mobile user to access information without getting (too) distracted. It matches the mindset of the mobile user, who is living life in the wide world and not sitting at a desk taking time with browsing. The app revolution is percolating into the PC world now; Google is dropping its customized "iGoogle" homepage next year in favor of an app page.

What Mozilla wants to do is to introduce some openness to this process, and perhaps to make it a bit more cloud-friendly. Firefox OS takes handset capabilities (display, GPS, radio) and makes them accessible as standard APIs. These can be used by web authors in HTML5 pages and scripts, and they can be combined with URLs that represent external web-linked or network resources. Instead of installing an app, you simply load an HTML5 page and you're running.

What you end up with is a model for something I call "brightphones"--phones that have some intelligence but are less expensive and less "internalized" in feature generation than the smartphones that run today's mobile OSs (iOS, Android, Microsoft, etc.). Under this model, the handset guys build a cheaper version of their device and run Firefox OS on it. It competes indirectly with smartphones because it can deliver much the same experience for MOST (not all) apps, but can do it cheaper and using cloud resources more extensively, so it favors cloud-based service strategies.

The telcos--most in private and some in public--love this notion because it could reduce the mobile-market dominance of the smartphone vendors. Some are also very interested in the fact that this model could help them deploy their own smartphone features, hosted by the operators and used in those HTML5-based apps.

This latest version of Firefox OS comes at an interesting time, because Microsoft is clearly ramping up for a giant cloud and appliance battle with Google. The most recent salvo is Office 2013, which will be supported on even the Windows RT version of Microsoft's Surface tablet, and which will for the first time include integration with Microsoft's Lync UC platform as well as Skype and Yammer. All of this seems to point to a more cloud-centric vision for collaboration in general and UC in particular. Microsoft's strategy is proprietary, of course, but Firefox OS could present an open strategy for creating collaboration.

Here's how it could play out: Imagine an HTML5 web developer weaving some handset or tablet features together with a cloud-hosted set of tools that included whiteboard, meeting, video, voice, etc. The result would look like a UC app, and it could work not only on phones or tablets but also on Firefox browsers for desktops and laptops, providing that there was some way to mimic APIs that represented the "handset or tablet features". That doesn't seem like rocket science, and in fact Mozilla seems to be planning to provide these tools for PCs and other platforms that Firefox runs on. Mobility, communications, collaboration, and productivity--even access to business applications--might be merged into this glorious HTML5-based process and hosted (of course!) in the cloud.

An open model like this could offer significant benefits to users. If apps can be developed and deployed like HTML5 web pages, it sure simplifies the process of tuning collaboration and productivity features to each worker's specific needs. In theory, it would open the door for developers to deploy productivity tools as cloud services that could then be composed into pretty screens by those HTML5 authors. It could also redefine the competition in the space, forcing the primary collaboration and UC vendors to open their features up as cloud-hosted services delivered through URLs. Some might like this kind of business model--it's more subscription than purchase, and clearly what Microsoft and Google envision already.

There are potential security issues here too, of course. Any web page can access any URL, which might mean that an HTML5 author building an app for a business could incorporate tools that were untrustworthy, meaning unreliable or insecure. Maybe even downright malicious. The details on how Firefox OS could be secured are yet to be finalized, and it's not known whether these mechanisms would work only on Firefox OS or also on the Firefox browser running on other platforms. In any event, the security problems with Firefox would be no worse than those associated with any sort of thin-client, browser-based, application access strategy. How well does anybody know what's inside those URLs, particularly when they're interfaces to a service instead of interfaces that deliver a visual experience like a web page?

That's likely a question that enterprises will have to ask, and answer, and not only for Firefox OS. The trends in the market seem to be driving us toward a service-feature model of applications in general, a model where application features are exposed through APIs and URLs and composed into screens on demand. Most of the security mechanisms that target the use of URLs or web APIs are firewall-based and designed to enable or block, but can they scale to the size of the cloud? Can they be updated to keep pace with the delivery of new application and communications features? We're probably going to find out.