release of the FirefoxOS simulator
Your editor has frequently written that, while Android is a great system
that has been highly beneficial to the cause of open mobile devices, it
would be awfully nice to have a viable, free-software alternative. Every
month that goes by makes it harder for any such alternative system to
establish itself in the market, but that does not keep people from trying.
One of the more interesting developments on the horizon has been FirefoxOS
— formerly known as Boot2Gecko — a system under development at Mozilla.
In the absence of any available hardware running this system, the recent
seemed like a good opportunity to
get a feel for what the Mozilla folks are up to.
Naturally enough, the simulator
is distributed as a Firefox add-on. At 93MB, it's a bit larger than a
typical extension, but, then, it's supposed to be an entire operating
system. The extension refused to install on the archaic iceweasel shipped
with Debian Testing, but it works well enough on more recent Firefox
browsers. Running the extension yields a mostly-empty page with the
opportunity to load software modules and a button to run the simulator
itself. What is one to do in such a situation other than to push that
button and see what happens?
In this case, what happens is the arrival of a handset-shaped popup window
with a clock (two clocks, actually), and a battery indicator. Many
FirefoxOS features look a lot like their Android equivalents — a
resemblance that starts with the initial screen. Perhaps there is no
practical equivalent to the notification/status bar at the top of the
screen. Certainly it will help to make the experience familiar to users
coming over from an Android device.
That familiarity runs into a hitch at unlock time, though. As with other
devices, one starts by making a swipe gesture (upward, in this case) on the
screen. But then one must tap a padlock icon to actually unlock the
device. There is no explanation of why things were done this way, of
course. But it is not hard to imagine that the FirefoxOS developers did
not wish to start their foray into handset systems with a dispute over one
of Apple's higher-profile patents. So, likely as not, anybody who finds
the extra tap irritating has the US patent system to blame.
Like Android, the FirefoxOS home screen is split into several virtual
screens; one can move between them by dragging the background to the left
or the right. The actual implementation, though, more closely resembles
webOS, in that those screens have different purposes. The initial home
screen appears to be reserved for the clock, a standard-issue launcher bar
at the bottom, and a bunch of empty space. There does not appear to be any
provision for adding icons or widgets to this screen.
Dragging the home screen to the left yields a screen full of application
launcher icons. In fact, there are three such screens to be found in that
direction. Installing an application adds its icons to one of those
screens. As with webOS, one can, with a long press, drag icons around to
rearrange or delete them. The icons gravitate toward the upper left,
though; there is no way to arrange a gap in middle. They can be dragged
from one launcher screen to another, but they refuse to move to the home
screen. Icons can also be dragged to the launcher bar, which, amusingly,
will accept far more icons than it can hold, causing some to be pushed off
the side of the screen.
On the other side of the home screen is something that announces itself as
"Everything.me". It appears to be a way to search for resources locally
and remotely. The icons there can be supplemented with such useful
functions as "Celebs" and "Astrology." There is a search bar that will
yield a completely different set of icons with no real clue as to what is
behind them. Unfortunately, none of these icons appears to actually do
anything in version 1.0 of the simulator, so it's hard to evaluate the
functionality of this subsystem.
As one would expect, there is a "marketplace" from which additional
applications may be loaded. Also as one might expect, the list of
applications does not come close to what a more established system would
provide, but, if FirefoxOS is successful, that will presumably change. The
application installation process is relatively straightforward; just click
and it's there. The FirefoxOS privilege
model appears to be still evolving; certainly there are no signs of it
at the application installation level. Interestingly, there is a menu
under "settings" where those permissions can be viewed — and toggled, if
Actually running applications in the simulator is a hit-or-miss matter;
some of them work a lot better than others do. Switching between running
applications is accomplished by holding down the "home" button in a way
similar to how older Android releases behaved.
The impression one gets from the simulator is that the FirefoxOS developers
have managed to put together a credible system for handsets and other
mobile devices. Users of current systems will probably find gaps in
functionality and in the set of available applications, but that can be
expected to change if this platform takes off and becomes widely available
on real hardware. Anybody wanting a system that is more "Linux-like" than
Android may well be disappointed; there is not likely to be much
traditional Linux user-space functionality to be found behind the FirefoxOS
user interface. But this system may prove interesting indeed for users in
search of an alternative system based on free software and Mozilla's
commitment to its users' privacy and security.
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