Mobile is just the beginning

First thoughts on Firefox OS

Having spent some time with Firefox OS last week, I thought I would share some thoughts on the platform, and a few key aspects of the user experience.

The platform

FFOS is a very interesting experiment. The native vs web app (vs plain old web) debate has raged for years but has (in my opinion) been complicated by a lack of robust scenarios to evaluate. (As Jason Grigsby once said “We can’t predict future behaviour from a current experience that sucks”). Web apps don’t suck, but current ecosystems may have made it difficult to properly judge user preference. We need a properly orchestrated test case and Firefox OS might just be it.

I do have reservations regarding the occasionally overtly prescriptive definitions of a “mobile web app” (i.e. single page, JavaScript heavy, transition and gesture enabled), but am also interested in seeing how things play out. If FFOS does well, it may prove the first large scale investigation of just where the app/site threshold lies from a purely user-facing perspective.

FFOS is particularly interesting due to its high potential for growth. The platform has lots of backers, devices will be competitively priced, and will be released in parts of the world where many consumers have yet to buy their first smartphone. Each time a consumer considers one of these devices, they will (to varying, and very personal degrees) be evaluating several things: a new platform, a new and very personal piece of hardware, and a new set of mental models around the availability, discovery and use of apps.

Given the strength of its partners, i’m not too concerned the platform will suffer due to dodgy hardware or poor (and possibly performance sucking) software integration. The OS itself is fast, well designed, approachable and hackable. I think it will do very well. So that leaves the new bargain we’re making with users: here is a device that will enable you to discover fast, fun and useful web applications that you can download or used “just in time”.

Will users want this? Will they even understand the difference?

What will they miss? What will they hack?

The product’s acceptance will of course not happen in a vacuum. FFOS marketing and developer evangelism are bound to influence how people perceive these devices. The quality of the apps they come in contact with will also serve as a lens through which to judge the experience. But the web is a big place. There are currently millions more mobile optimised web sites than “mobile web apps”. I’m curious how people will feel about this mix and whether they will  care (or even feel?) a lack of “appyness” in some (especially those that begin to experiment with the new Web APIs).

The fact that FFOS is open, and hackable also means that if people don’t like certain bits, they may well change them (there is good reference here from the many Android MODs, custom launchers and other variants that have sprung up around the world). If the platform proves popular we no doubt learn quite a bit from its evolution!

Now for a few thoughts about two key aspects of the FFOS user experience: Smart search and the experience browsing the web in “app” vs browser mode.

(A bit of a disclaimer. I’m well aware that i’m interacting with something embryonic. My time with the platform has taken place on a Geeksphone Peak. This is not an “official” FFOS device so there may be differences between what i’ve experienced and what others will see. I am also far too embroiled in the web and mobile industries to come at this without preconceptions. Still however, i’m struggling with certain aspects of the platform and this is my stab at explaining this disconnect).

“Smart adaptive app search”

Firefox OS devices include a smart search feature called Marketing materials describe it as…

“…an adaptive app search that literally transforms the phone to meet your needs at any moment, without the need to download anything…start to type what you are interested in to get a whole new customized phone experience based on your needs instantly“.

The goals here seem clear enough: enable personalised discovery leading to “download” or one-time-use.

Smart search is easy to use. Swipe to the right on the device and you’re presented with a search bar and series of categories (such as Social, Shopping and Sports). You can either type keywords in the search box, or choose from the categories. Tapping a category displays a list of icons representing apps in this category. A keyword search does the same, but based on the search terms.

What’s a bit uncanny about the whole thing is that neither of these actions correspond to a search on the “real” web. Results are (so far) limited to sites that are (in some way) mobile optimised. While this kinda makes sense from a “give you the best possible first mobile web experience” point of view, you quickly end up browsing a very disjointed list. The Travel category for example shows me common stuff like Tripadvisor, then fairly quickly moves on to Michigan Travel and New Orleans Tourism (I live in Scotland).

Keyword searches seem even more constrained. The following scenario is often quoted: “enter the name of a band, and we will show you places to download their music”. This scenario works quite well. The results include apps such as Soundcloud and and deep-links right to the artist in question (yeah indexable web!). But enter keywords that don’t immediately conjure up a transactional opportunity, or don’t map to activities you might complete using a well known service, and your options peter out quite quickly. These results may be suitable for the device but certainly don’t match what you’d find in a “normal” web search and (ironically) end up giving the impression that the web has far less to offer than it actually does.

Despite its good intentions, the whole feature ends up feeling like some sort of portal. As it stands, I fear it will confuse people and when they don’t quite find what they expect, they will switch to the browser (…more on this later).

Above and beyond delivering more relevant results, a thing that could improve smart search is an ability to customise. It’s currently easy to add categories (from a list), but you can’t remove the ones you don’t like. This quickly bloats the list and gives it that all too familiar “please enjoy apps from our select partners” feel. It’s also impossible to filter or reorder search results. This might be fine if this were a full blown app store (with screenshots, reviews and app descriptions) or search engine (with brief description and the odd photo or sub-link) but with nothing but an icon and label, the longer the list gets, the harder it is to decide what to click on.

On the one hand, I kind of understand these design decisions. Smart search helps you find apps you might like, and the platform itself delivers a low commitment opportunity to try them out. If you find something you really like, you can go a step further and save it to your home screen. So it works well in a “try before you buy” scenario but misses an opportunity to align with the full breadth of app interaction use cases.

Most studies reveal that while people install lots of apps, most only use a handful of these (currently native) apps a week. The rest tend to fall into one of two categories: something you get bored with or forget about (and therefore don’t use again), or something you do use (maybe even quite passionately), but just not all that often.

This is where the web really shines. The fact that you don’t need an app on a daily basis doesn’t make that app any less useful or meaningful to your life. It doesn’t also automatically mean you are a less valuable customer to that brand (you may interact with them in lots of other ways). But because native apps take time to download, and you can’t simply “Google them and use them” the native app model compels people to download and hold on to all sorts of apps just in case they need them again. I have many apps like this. The IKEA app (I shop there maybe twice a year), a Berlin subway guide (I visit 1-3 times a year) or Agoda which I use (about twice a year) to book hotels in Asia. I might occasionally “promote” one of these to my home screen to suit my activities (why hunt for the Berlin map while i’m actually in Berlin?) but I don’t want them there all the time.

These are however just the kind of apps that I would be happy to access, with a few keystrokes (the fewer the better) using smart search. In fact, if I use them often, I might expect these apps to just be there at the top of the list, or tucked away in a “Frequently used” category. Firefox OS is great for “one-time” and repetitive use, but i’d love to see it free us from having to save and manage stuff we value but only occasionally use.

Am I in app or browser mode? And should I care?

Congratulations: you’ve found an “app” that you like enough to save it to your home screen! App is just a convenience term here. It could be a plain old “site”, something designed to feel appy and load data asynchronously, or something in between. Any web thing will do.

Once you’ve made this decision to save it, opening it will forever launch it in app mode (my term, not theirs). In app mode, common browser controls such as back/next are tucked away in an easy to access drawer, overall features are reduced (no tabs, bookmarks etc.) and the URL bar has been permanently removed. This mode feels more “appy” as there is little visible browser chrome, and the content can be enjoyed (basically) full-screen.

The problem with this scenario may simply be one of perception, but here goes: why is there no URL bar? Sounds like a quibbling, so let me illustrate why this might matter.

So i’m in the Twitter “app” (which i’ve saved to my home screen) and click on an interesting link. I read something fascinating, decide I want to Google it but now i’m stuck. Not hugely stuck of course. I can close the app, find the Firefox browser, open it, Google whatever it was and go about my business, but why exactly do I have to do all that? Am I not already in a browser? In fact, is *the entire device* not a browser? Why do I need to jump from an (imaginary) app silo to a (equally imaginary) browser silo?

If you still think this is only a matter of semantics, let’s turn the scenario around.

I’m browsing a random site, but this time using the Firefox browser. I’m reading an article by someone unfamiliar and decide to click their profile photo. This brings me to their Facebook profile. Facebook is an “app” which I just moments ago (back on the “app” side) logged into, and saved to my home screen. Except now, i’m accessing it from the browser.

Does that browser know it’s one of my “apps”? If Firefox OS knows, surely the browser must know. Why should the experience be different? And will I have to login again (at the moment I do) or download assets again even though on the “app” side, I may have cached those same assets (…interesting question, anyone know the answer to that last one?)

So that’s my problem. Why the division? I get that hiding a URL bar is nice, but why can’t I have it back if I need it without traversing the rest of the OS to get to the browser?

And to take this line of inquiry one step further, why do I need to open the Firefox browser at all if the whole device is actually…the Firefox browser?

For the record, i’m not suggesting there is a completely easy answer to this. There are no doubt technical challenges and people may not be ready for such a switch in mental models…but wouldn’t it be neat to find out?

Maybe the conceptual app/web division is entirely based on our inability to conceive of an operating system as a browser. Many Firefox OS consumers will be buying their first smartphone. They may have some level familiarity with apps (Android’s popularity in BRIC countries, and ten years worth of J2ME-based operator and OEM portals will have seen to that) but they may ironically be relatively new to the web.

We’ve provided them with this amazing new platform that seeks to tear down the barriers between apps and the web, and the first thing we go and do is create barriers between apps and the web.

Seems like a strange thing to do…

9 Responses to “First thoughts on Firefox OS”

  1. Remi Grumeau

    Very simple question: imagine yourself as a regular customer going to a phone store. Would you buy a 5″ Android phone (Samsung, Acer, HTC, Motorola) or one of those spanish Geeksphone ?

    • steph

      I’m not the target market though. These devices will be primarily sold in emerging economies as entry level smartphones. So they will be competing with Asha and low cost Android devices at the $40-60 price point (i’m not even sure Asha can meet that at the moment…some Androids can).

      I’m not sure why they first launched in Spain. Kinda confuses their marketing I think (although featurephone penetration is still much higher there than in the UK or many other EU countries).

  2. dan

    Having played around with one for a bit I agree with your points. Another factor that I haven’t been sold on is, if this primarily browser driven device is aimed at developing countries, that don’t generally have good data speeds or coverage and if they do, the kind of people this device is targeted often couldn’t afford it.

    Yes you can write create offline HTML5 apps using their tools but if I was going down that route I would probably use Phonegap and be able to target other platforms simultaneously. I hear that Phonegap support for FFOS is in the works so that is probably the route I would opt for if doing anything on this platform.

    There are also already an enormous selection of no name Android smartphones available in these markets that still come in the price range of the devices that are initially available, also the benefit of a huge catalogue of existing offline capable apps and the backing of Google.

    It’s interesting and always good to see someone trying to throw new ideas into the mix, but you kind of get the impression that even Mozilla isn’t that confident it’s going to work. Good luck to them though

    • steph

      Yeah, competing with Android will be an issue. There certainly are phones at that price point and large communities sharing tips to hack bits of the experience, install MODs and download the best apps. Firefox OS currently has none of that (although if they can tap into the Firefox browser community, that should help….not sure if the target audiences align though…probably on the dev side but not so sure about the user side).

      Interesting experiment and there is something to be said for buying a much simpler phone. Not everyone wants to hack around and install lots of apps. Some people still find all this quite intimidating so a phone that lets them dip their toes while not overwhelming them with customisation and app choices might be welcome.

    • Gonzalo Martín

      Maybe the connection costs aren’t the issue. In emerging countries free wifis in hotels, restaurants and so on can do the trick. Take a look at Bogotá, Colombia. Every restaurant has got free wifi and they kindly give you their password on request.

  3. puccup

    My first thoughts when I read about FxOS were “I wonder if the Hypertext Applications (HTA) written in Javascript and HTML for the microsoft environment will run on this”. HTAs have been around since Windows 95 came out. Some were in VBS, some were in JScript. My first experience of a virus was from an .hta script. It is a pity Windows phones don’t support hta. There are millions of apps out there written as htas. I’ve used them for everything: from games to database extraction to firing missiles. The great thing about it is that I can go to any windows machine (from Win95 to Win8), pop up notepad and write an hta and run it. No special tools required as long as the machine has IE installed.

    If FxOS supported some of the interfaces that MS HTAs support, that market could be instantly available. In fact you could write code on either platform and swap applications between the two. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

  4. Jwalant Natvarlal Soneji

    Really nice article…
    Did somebody from Mozilla reach to you on the concerns/features discussed here?

    I am hoping that the browser/app boundary gets really thin as the time goes by. It should still let me change my browser from FF to something else.. (can I change the browser on which it runs?).

    My concern is from its “free” and “open source” world adaptability.. without making it truly free, it may not be able to span as big as Android has gone in terms of different apps/devices.

  5. steph

    No comment yet from Mozilla :-)

    Being able to change the browser on which it runs sounds doubtful…but an interesting idea!

  6. Enlaces de la semana | Bianka Hajdu

    […] First thoughts on Firefox OS Reflexiones de Stephanie Rieger tras cacharrear con un Geeksphone. Parece que hay webs que son presentadas como "apps" por el FFOS pese a que están en la web. "We’ve provided them with this amazing new platform that seeks to tear down the barriers between apps and the web, and the first thing we go and do is create barriers between apps and the web." […]


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