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Mozilla sets its site on mobile standardization

Joab Jackson | Oct. 13, 2011
After helping pave the way for platform independent websites and applications, the Mozilla Foundation has set a new, and ambitious, task for itself to standardize mobile applications on the Web platform as well, according to a talk given by its chief technology officer.

For developers, writing to a Web platform would save development time, because each application would only have to be written once, Eich argued. And consumers could benefit by being able to run their applications across different devices, as well as be able to access their data no matter the device or the software used.

Some elements are already in place: HTML5 and associated technologies such as CSS and JavaScript can provide the tools the developers need ("There is nothing that Flash can do that browsers can't," he said).

Other existing technologies may need only slight modification for this new environment. Eich demonstrated a version of JavaScript developed by Intel, River Trail, that can execute some of the JavaScript code on the GPU (graphics processing unit). This can vastly increase the speed at which JavaScript apps can perform. He ran an animation that, without River Trail, executed on the browser at a rate of 3 frames per second, while with the Parallel JavaScript engine, ran at a much smoother 45 FPS.

Mozilla itself has a number of projects that could help with its goal. Mozilla employs about 570 employees, and about 1,000 active code committers.

One project is BrowserID, which uses the browser as a mechanism for verifying the user's identity. Once users verify their email address, that address can be used to log in to different sites, with the browser providing the password automatically. BrowserID works like OpenID, except that the email address, rather than a Web address provides the authentication.

"BrowserID is the lynchpin for open Web apps," Eich said.

Another project is called Boot To Gecko, which Eich demonstrated during his talk, using an Android phone. When he turned the phone on, the device displayed what looked like a typical Android home screen. But this screen was actually the Firefox browser, built on the Gecko rendering engine and OpenGL JavaScript graphics library. All the applications on the device were written using only HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

Despite this work, Mozilla still faces difficulties in getting handset makers and phone carriers to go along with the approach, Eich admitted.

"It's still too expensive to develop mobile hardware. The phone's hardware is still a little too expensive, so the companies that build their phones have to lock their users in to vertical silos, and to keep the user relationship to make more money to recoup their investments," Eich said.

Much of Google's Android is open source, so Mozilla engineers can work intimately with the OS in that case. Other platforms, such as Apple's, are more closed. Browser makers would also have to grapple with individual device component drivers, which are usually difficult to work with.

 

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