Mozilla says it is dropping Firefox OS, its HTML-based mobile phone platform. It’s a surprising retreat from the software-development foundation, which over the past six years or so has put everything it had into the mobile phone project while leaving its popular web browser to try to pick up what new features it could by porting them from the phone project. Firefox OS shipped in its initial version two years ago, and in the process of creating it, with the Firefox web browser largely neglected, Mozilla saw its browser market share fall by more than half. During this period major browser bugs went unaddressed for as many as five versions while important browser features were taken away because it was thought they would make the desktop browser too incompatible with the mobile platform. Mozilla thought it had to take this course because of the enthusiasm of its developers for the mobile phone project.
Perhaps that enthusiasm has waned now that Firefox OS, facing an already crowded market for mobile platforms, has failed to gain any traction in its first two years of release. In any case, the leaders at Mozilla are trying to position the Firefox web browser as their marquee product again. This year saw the Firefox browser ported to the iOS platform, if only for those with the latest iOS version. It shows that Firefox has no intention of disappearing from mobile even if it is no longer trying to own the mobile platform.
The renewed focus on the long-neglected web browser may allow some of its more troubling deficiencies to be corrected. Firefox is still seen as the most standards-compliant browser and it will have a ready audience if it can focus on being secure, user-friendly, and productive again.
Looking back, it is hard to say the Firefox OS project was a mistake even though it ultimately failed. The mobile-first approach at Mozilla helped usher in the current era of mobile-compatible web design, a change that would not have happened so smoothly without Firefox leading the way. It is now not so easy to remember that just a few years ago, few people thought web sites could be mobile-friendly and standards-compatible at the same time. Now that is what everyone expects to see in a web site. That’s a substantial shift in the web, and the world will reap the benefits from it for years to come.