Firefox OS From An App Developer’s Perspective

I recently saw a presentation from the Firefox team of their new mobile OS. It’s impressive and tempting, but the question is, will it be worth writing apps for it?

Commercial Apps

There are several standard business models for app developers:

  • Paid-for apps
  • Ad funded free apps
  • Freemium
  • In-app purchases

Let’s focus on the first which represents a huge part of business in the only 2 real players’, Apple’s and Google’s, app stores. Apple and Google are taking ~30% of every sale as their sell and serve fee and the app developer (and possibly the taxman) gets the rest . App developers are protected to a reasonable extent by virtue of their applications being distributed in compiled binary form. It’s not trivial to reverse engineer apps and repackage them. Not so with an HTML 5 / Javascript app. As far as I see, there are 2 recourses you have as a developer to protect your efforts from being repackaged and resold by a freeloader:

  • Try and obfurscate your code. There are tools to help you do this but there are downsides such as bug reports / stack traces from end users are going to be very hard for you to use.
  • Sue them. This doesn’t seem like a scalable, practical solution, especially since there’s a fair chance that whoever’s freeloading on your app lives in another country, quite possibly one where the legal system is rather ‘basic’.

Googling around, game developers, who represent a large proportion of the developers of paid-for apps, seem to share my concern with the HTML5+JS technology.

Imagine the scene. You’re a product manager inside, say, Electronic Arts. You have a great business plan for a new game. It’s going to cost a few hundred thousand to develop, but it’s going to sell in huge volume in mobile. So you go to the beancounters to get the investment signed off. Being the duly diligent types they are, the beancounters ask: “So, Quentin, what’s the copy protection plan on this Firefox OS doohickey?” Ah, OK, let’s scratch that one from the list…

It seems that the only way that you can really protect your investment is to make a product where the majority of your value is installed server-side and you don’t care if anybody rips off your client. Which neatly brings me to my next point…

Who’s Firefox OS For, Anyway?

Decent Android devices start at around 100 eurodollars, e.g. Samsung Galaxy Y. Sure, a small, plastic screen but you still get the full Android experience and full Google-y goodness like the fantastic Play store with ~700,000 apps, excellent GMail app, YouTube app, Currents, Chrome, etc. Slick, integrated, smart. And Samsung.

You can go even cheaper, and millions of people in China do, with de-Google-ised Android devices.

So Firefox OS is really aimed at the next billion. The people of the world living on a few dollars a day.

Read that last sentence again.

This is a market where people really need to make choices between eating or sending a text message – the market of the 20 eurodollar featurephone handset. This is a market where Nokia has had a great deal of success in the past but has also just lost to Samsung. A Firefox OS device will need to be inherently more expensive than the cheapest keypad+screen devices since it’s a touch UI – bigger screen, bigger battery, more expensive (and more frequent charges which is also a really big deal when you don’t live in luxury).

Firefox OS is built on everything being a web app. From what I see, to attract developers, apps will mostly be server-centric (or risk getting ripped off (see above)). Seen the snag yet? Unless the user happens to have a nearby Starbucks or whatever with free WiFi, they’re going to have to pay dearly for that data connectivity. And those same people aren’t likely to be spending much on steaming Venti Latt├ęs or Frappuccinos, so no Starbucks.

Firefox OS is a lovely idea. Really it is. In a way, I’d love it to succeed (except for the fact that I need another development platform like another hole in my head). But it seems like a solution without a viable market.