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Wait, Firefox is an Operating System Now? Firefox OS Explained

firefox-os-billboard

Did you know that Mozilla is creating a new operating system built on top of Firefox, dubbed Firefox OS? This isn’t an operating system for your computer — Firefox OS is Mozilla’s attempt at a smartphone OS.

If you keep up on tech news, you’ve probably heard of Firefox OS. If you’re a normal person — or just a busy geek who doesn’t read all the tech news — you may not know much about it yet.

Firefox OS is For Smartphones (and Tablets)

Mozilla’s Firefox OS is a smartphone operating system. It won’t be available on laptops or desktops any time soon. However, Mozilla is planning to release tablets running Firefox OS.

Firefox OS isn’t something you’ll install on your own devices. Instead, it’s an operating system that will come on new devices — you’d pick up a new smartphone or tablet that would run Firefox OS instead of Android, iOS, or Windows.

Why Mozilla is Creating Firefox OS

Mozilla is a non-profit organization dedicated to making the web better, unlike other browser manufacturers — Microsoft, Google, and Apple — who are for-profit corporations. Mozilla sees Firefox OS as important competition in the mobile market.

Mozilla believes in web-based software on the open web, and wants to replace native applications with browser-based ones built on open standards. This is more and more the case on desktops and laptops, where people spend most of the time in their browser. Whether it’s checking email or watching videos, people probably do it in a web browser — and there’s a good chance they’re using Firefox to do it.

However, smartphone and tablet users spend much of their time in native apps. These apps must be written specifically for each platform and are generally distributed in app stores. Apple, Google, and Microsoft all have their own ecosystems with their own apps that will only run on certain operating systems.

Mozilla wants to create a mobile operating system based on web standards, bringing first-class web apps to the mobile world and fighting back against the new trend towards proprietary ecosystems with their own incompatible apps.

zte-firefox-os-smartphone

How Firefox OS is Different

As you might expect given Firefox OS’s name and Mozilla’s vision, Firefox OS doesn’t run traditional “native” apps. Instead, every app on Firefox OS is a web app written in HTML and JavaScript. Much of the code in these apps may run locally, but they’re still written in web technologies.

To accomplish this, Mozilla has added a variety of APIs that allow web apps to interface with hardware features. For example, on Firefox OS, the dialer you use to dial numbers is written entirely in HTML and JavaScript. It runs locally, but is implemented with web technologies. You could theoretically “view source” on the dialer to view its code, just as you could view a web page’s source code.

Mozilla provides their own app store in the form of the Firefox Marketplace, which is the official source of Firefox OS apps. Mobile carriers can also set up their own Firefox OS app stores. Web apps could also be accessed from outside the store as typical websites, of course.

Mozilla also wants these apps to be portable. For example, Mozilla creates a full-featured version of Firefox for Android. In theory, you could one day install Firefox for Android and access the Firefox Marketplace to use Firefox OS apps on Android.

firefox-marketplace

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Firefox OS has a lot in common with Chrome OS, Google’s browser-centric OS for laptops. Just as everything ultimately runs in Chrome on Chrome OS, everything ultimately runs in Firefox on Firefox OS — even though these apps can run “outside the browser” and be installed locally.

Where Firefox OS is Being Sold

If you’re in North America or Europe, there’s a good reason you haven’t yet heard of Firefox OS. Mozilla is avoiding these markets for now and has been selling cheap, low-end Firefox OS phones in more price-sensitive markets.

The first Firefox OS smartphone is named the ZTE Open, and it has been made available in places like Spain, Latin America, and India since July 2013. The ZTE Open sells for about $80 without a contract, as opposed to high-end phones like the iPhone 5s that sell for $649 without a contract. Firefox OS phones are just now being launched in other countries throughout Europe, but there are no plans to launch phones in North America yet.

Because Firefox OS is only available on such low-end devices and is so new, it’s unsurprising that it doesn’t offer an amazing experience. Just as cheap, low-end Android smartphones can be laggy and slow in real-world use, the ZTE Open also doesn’t offer particularly amazing performance according to reviewers. Mozilla seems to think it has an opening given Android’s poor performance on low-end phones, but Firefox OS also doesn’t seem to have amazing performance and Google is working hard on optimizing Android, most notably with the big memory requirement reduction in Android 4.4

Don’t hold your breath for Firefox OS. It will be some time before Firefox OS matures and becomes more widely available on a variety of devices in more markets.

firefox-os-billboard[3]

Try Firefox OS For Yourself

If you’re really curious about Firefox OS, you can explore it a bit by installing the Firefox OS Simulator add-on for Firefox on your computer. This simulator isn’t perfect, but its goal is to offer a “Firefox OS-like environment that look and feels like a mobile phone,” allowing developers to develop and test apps for Firefox OS.

firefox-os-simulator

If you’re a really crazy geek, you can find Firefox OS builds for the Nexus 4 smartphones online, allowing you to play with it on an actual phone. We wouldn’t recommend this at all — people who have tried it report that various hardware features don’t work and they’ve encountered a variety of crashes. You’re better off using the simulator.


Firefox OS was previously known as “Boot to Gecko” or “B2G” because Firefox OS is a minimal Linux-based system that boots to a platform based on Gecko, Firefox’s rendering engine.

Image Credit: Wojciech Szczęsny on Flickr, Kārlis Dambrāns on Flickr, Wojciech Szczęsny on Flickr

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.

  • Published 12/7/13

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