Firefox OS is coming – Ars posted a preview of a prototype, and while its chances of success are slim in the face of (relatively) more mature mobile operating and eco-systems1, it’s encouraging to see how something as rich and as complex as an operating system be built with web APIs and standards. In fact, the rate of progress that the web has seen these past few years has been nothing short of astounding, going everywhere from game engines to a multitude of compile-to-JS languages to webapps that are almost indistinguishable from native ones.
That last point has been the crux of the argument to how apps (usually of the mobile variety) should be built. Webapps that are as polished as Forecast are extremely rare, and plenty of companies – big and small alike – have given up trying to make HTML5-based apps work, citing browser performance and lack of native APIs as reasons that web apps will always have that inferior, laggy user experience.
The openness of the web has the opposite effect: there are a huge diversity of frameworks and designs, but rarely a dominant standard that developers can rally and fortify a standard around. Almost a decade after Google showed the world what it could do with a simple XMLHttpRequest, I can’t recall a time when we’ve had wide consensus on how to build a desktop or mobile web app2. The noise-to-signal ratio of web development is maddeningly high; it evolves at breakneck speeds, but seems to strive to merely catch up with the innovation shown by mobile app development.
That’s the promise that a mobile Firefox OS brings to web apps. It’s not so much technologically superior to mobile OSs as it is a beacon that web development can coalesce around: a platform with an SDK that sidesteps the evolutionary crawl that seems to be a requirement for open standards. Even if the initiative fails horribly, we can hope that it will establish the bar that all subsequent web development should be measured against.