Warning: this is a pretty log post.
A few months ago, I bought a ZTE Open Firefox OS device on eBay. It was the original Open, not the apparently much nicer Open C that is available now. I wanted to have a play with Firefox OS as not only was it entirely HTML5 based, but Apache Cordova was beginning to implement support for the fledgling OS. I was pretty interested in seeing how well it worked, and the phone itself was pretty cheap for an outright phone - less than $90AUD.
Now, first up, let’s make it clear that Mozilla is not targeting iOS or Android with Firefox OS. It is not intended to go head to head with those much more established mobile OS’s. Mozilla is instead interested in the market the other two have almost entirely ignored. Low priced and developing countries. A Firefox OS device is not intended to replace an iPhone or the latest Samsung Galaxy device. A Firefox OS phone is much more likely to replace a “feature phone” – a dumbphone, as it were. They seem to be looking to get smartphones into the hands of people that otherwise might not be able to afford them. This is another reason I was very interested in the platform.
I mention all that as the nicest possible way of saying that my ZTE Open was not a very high end or powerful device. In some ways, it’s even more low powered than my HTC Wildfire S – my slowest Android 2.3 test phone. In fact, in a lot of ways the two phones are very similar. Small screen, low powered CPU, etc.So what did I think?
As I kinda have a soft spot for the aforementioned HTC Wildfire S, I actually liked it quite a bit. After playing with it casually for a couple days I came to the conclusion that they were doing a pretty good job at what they were trying to do. The “apps” worked nicely, and the seamless integration with “hosted” apps - i.e.: actual served web apps like Facebook Mobile and Twitter Mobile - was a real joy. Only iOS really comes this close to making a web app feel like a “real” app - removing the location bar, etc. I resolved kinda halfheartedly to try and think of an app to make for it. I didn’t think I could port my current apps to it, but thought it would be fun to try to think of something more suitable.
This was all a while back when I first got the device. I came away basically feeling that I really thought Mozilla was onto something, and that if I ever found the time and an idea that might suit the power of the device I would try and make an app for it. I also kinda thought that if there ever was such a thing as a high-end Firefox OS device, that it might almost be possible to use it as a daily driver. I don’t actually use as many apps as you might think an app developer would. Email, Facebook, Twitter, SpiderOak and Encryptr - gotta eat your own dogfood, after all - and that’s about it. Of course there are plenty of other things I use rarely, but those main ones are my desert island needs from a smartphone. I thought that if I had a Firefox OS phone as powerful as my Nexus 4 - my main phone at the time - that I would certainly be willing to give it a go, just out of HTML5 solidarity if nothing else.Getting serious
So fast forward to this week. I started thinking about my little orange phone again and even updated my Firefox OS simulator. Now that the Cordova CLI supports Firefox OS, I thought I’d see how hard it was to get a simple Hello World app up and running, at least on the simulator. Turns out it was so easy that it only took a couple seconds. I wanted more. Out of morbid curiosity I made a copy of my Encryptr app to really see how far I could push it. To my complete surprise, I ran the app up on the simulator and it actually mostly worked. All the primary functionality.. it worked. Wow.
My next problem was that the ZTE Open came with Firefox OS 1.0. My version of the Firefox OS simulator and App Manager needed at least version 1.2. This left me unable to even see how bad it was without upgrading. I couldn’t even run up a Hello World app. I needed to upgrade the ZTE Open. It didn’t go as smoothly as I would have hoped - at one point I even had it in an endless reboot loop - but I managed to get it updated to 1.2 with instructions on Mozilla’s site. Yay!
I think all this preamble is a dead giveaway for what happened next. I ran Encryptr on my little ZTE Open. It not only ran on the low end hardware, it actually ran better than it does on my iPhone 4. A lot better. It was actually useable. Could it be faster? Of course. but was my mind blown? Absolutely. No matter what else, I was impressed with Firefox OS at that point. I will also be fixing the last few issues, and around the same time as the Android release, I will be releasing Encryptr for Firefox OS.What happened next?
At this point I am pretty fired up about Firefox OS. I remembered how I felt that if only it was on decent hardware, it would be even more amazing. I remembered that at one time it was possible to run Firefox OS on a Samsung Galaxy S2. Since I had an S2 lying around, I thought I would see if it had gotten any easier to do. It hadn’t, really.. but wait… what’s this? Instructions on how to install Firefox OS on a Google Nexus 4? O_o
My Nexus 4 is no longer my main phone, so it was a ripe target for being flashed with a new OS. After a little trepidation I went ahead and did it, and let me tell you, Firefox OS 1.4 on a Quad-core 1.5 GHz CPU with 2GB of RAM is a sight to behold. It’s pretty much everything I had thought it would be. I am not trying to switch to it as my daily driver yet or anything, but it’s only been flashed since this morning. Just going to have to keep playing with it and see, but either way, it’s still pretty damn cool.
Note: don’t flash a Nexus 4 with Firefox OS then use it as your test phone for development. It’s as bad or worse than only ever using the simulator. Actual Firefox OS devices in the wild will not have that much grunt. Use a device like the new ZTE Open C or one of the Geeksphone developer devices. Mozilla is pretty keen to get devices to developers that are serious about porting their apps, so have a look at see if maybe you can get in on the Phones for Apps program. However, if you want to use Firefox OS as a serious replacement for an iOS or Android device, a Nexus 4 makes a fantastic Firefox OS phone. I am looking forward to seeing where it takes me. This could be the start of a beautiful new friendship.