"Whatever happened in the war to make everything a web-application? Are browsers on mobile devices so sub-standard they don't fully support what we loosely call HTML5? The future was supposed to be web-applications... and that was supposed to make developers lives easier. But it seems the reality has become multiple APIs/platforms with developers having to either pick one or more and build/maintain them. Ouch?"
The problem is that all end-users care about is having a snappy, responsive, and functional experience. I don't develop web applications so I can't comment on what's technically possible, but as a long time end user it seems no one can manage to achieve that.
Real world cellular data connections are flakey at best. They can go from 500 kB/s to 0.1 kB/s in a flash, or vanish for 10s of seconds at a time. And that's assuming your users *have* cellular data at all, many simply jump between wifi hotspots. I have yet to see a web app that can handle those conditions gracefully.
You could blame it on the lack of cross-platform standard for locally installing web-apps and caching required data for when connectivity isn't available, but I think Facebook's story is telling. They initially wrote their app by embedding a cross-platform web-app inside an OS-specific shell. The result was terrible. Loading took forever, and would frequently stall indefinitely. Caching never worked as expected, you'd get stale, inconsistent and sometimes erratic results. After trying to refine it for well over a year, they gave up and reimplemented it using as much native code as possible. The result? It handle the flakey connection gracefully. Loading was significantly faster and more reliable, time outs functioned as you'd expect and the caching problems went away. The app looked identical on surface, but the difference was the underlying mechanics actually worked reliably.
Again I'm not a web-app developer, but I'd speculate that the language and APIs just don't allow the low-level control required to handle challenging network conditions gracefully. If they did, you'd think Facebook of all companies could figure out how to make it work.
"While Android does have a slight majority of the mobile marketshare... given the rapid refresh rate of mobile devices (a smartphone average replacement cycle is 11 months)... I don't think Android is necessarily cemented into the mobile fabric... and almost anyone with enough resources could take the Linux underpinnings and slap a graphical shell on top. They'd just have to get handset makers and wireless providers to buy in. So I think the real challenges aren't necessarily technical in nature."
That's exactly it, and that's why IMHO a free/open community mobile OS will never catch on. It's not the technical challenge, it's marketing. It's the ecosystem. It's the "I want that" factor. It's the style. It's about drawing the consumer in. These are all things that big companies excel at, its their bread and butter.
Apple has this aced, once you start to buy-in and have everything working in harmony, you don't want to ever leave. A new phone gets all your data, apps, music etc transfer seamlessly across. Download a song on your phone? It appears on your tablet, computer and wife's phone instantly. Take a picture with your phone and it appears on your computer before you even get home. Import a photo from your SLR to your computer and it appears on your tablet. If you've got all this working, how appealing is a new device that breaks it all? It better have some *very* compelling new features.
Apple's definitely riding the bubble right now that they got from having a head-start on the "modern" smartphone and tablet. I fully expect them to shrink down a little, but they have a firm grip on the high-end and that's not going anywhere anytime soon. This is their specialty. High-end = higher profit margin per device, and when balanced properly = highest total profit.
Google isn't dumb and they're doing their damnedest to try and mirror the ecosystem/lock-in with the Play store, etc. They're doing everything they can to gobble up whatever part of the high-end Apple doesn't have, and take as much of the middle as possible. Their business model is to get the largest number of users as possible, since their product isn't the phone, it's the users.
This leaves the low-end, consisting of people who basically only use the web-browser, facebook and twitter. They take photos, but only to upload to social media. They refuse to spend $ on apps, songs etc and as such are never "locked in" to a brand. This is exactly where I see Firefox OS excelling. A "web" device marketed to "web" users.
*This* is the problem facing a new free, open-community mobile OS. It doesn't matter how technically compelling the OS software is, that's only one small component to success.