Firefox OS 1.1 needs more of a boost to soar

Mozilla's contender for the budget mobile space claims performance boosts and new features, but is still missing too much

The Mozilla Foundation's HTML5-powered mobile platform, Firefox OS, just got a 1.1. release with a bevy of new features and a boost in speed.

It'll need all of it, because so far Firefox OS has been way too slow and missing too many of even the most basic features that mobile users take for granted.

Built around Mozilla's HTML rendering engine, Firefox OS was created as a low-cost alternative to Android or iOS on budget phone hardware. Mozilla has also touted the general openness of the system, with Firefox OS apps just being HTML5 apps; any developer familiar with HTML5 can create apps for Firefox OS. Among the first devices sporting the OS have been the ZTE Open and the Alcatel One Touch Fire, with the former selling for some $90 for Spain's Telefónica network. More regions and operators are being added for the next wave of phone sales.

But the results, at least as they have run on the first generation of hardware with the 1.0 version of the OS, haven't been impressive.

InfoWorld's Galen Gruman took a look at Firefox OS on the ZTE Open and wasn't moved. The dodgy hardware was bad enough, but the OS sported "way too many rough edges," he wrote. "The HTML5 software that comes with Firefox OS, as well as the very limited set of apps in the app store, reinforce the notion that you can't do serious apps in HTML. ... For example, no Firefox OS app that I tested supports text selection or copying. Then again, no apps I tested supported text selection or copying."

Many of the apps in question only sported partial functionality, including the email and calendaring apps -- both of which Mozilla ought to have had plenty of experience with through its Thunderbird desktop application. Problems like this forced Gruman to conclude that "Firefox OS and its built-in app suite simply can't be used for business even for small businesses relying on the Google Apps capabilities that nearly every device out there supports via native client or Web browser."

He did give the OS high marks for HTML5 compatibility, which seems inevitable for an OS that uses HTML5 as its UI technology.

The list of fixes that Mozilla is touting for the 1.1 update does include performance improvements ("Experience faster application load times and smoother scrolling"), push notifications, MMS messaging, and improvements to built-in apps like email, contacts, and calendaring.

Few of those changes seem designed to address the biggest objections Gruman had with Firefox OS, though. Text handling isn't mentioned as an improvement -- save for the addition of autocorrect (a feature that's been utterly standard on mobile OSes for ages) -- and it still isn't clear if you can use ActiveSync with an actual Microsoft Exchange server instead of just Hotmail and Outlook.com.

But so far Mozilla's strategy doesn't seem motivated by the need to provide anything like business-level features -- not when the phones themselves are being sold as budget consumer-grade items. So far its plan has been to release early and often, and to keep existing phones updated. If Mozilla can do a better job of updating existing hardware than Google and its handset partners did in Android's early days, that might help prevent users from drifting away to costlier but more fully-fleshed-out alternatives.

For those who want to give Firefox OS a spin on desktop hardware or do their own app development, Mozilla offers a simulator that runs directly in Firefox itself.

This story, "Firefox OS 1.1 needs more of a boost to soar," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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