Mozilla mobile OS may face future patent battles, says expert

"Too little, too late," adds another analyst

Mozilla's plan to create a mobile operating system will probably face patent challenges, one expert said, while another called it "too little, too late."

Yesterday, Mozilla announced a new project dubbed "Boot to Gecko" (B2G) that it hopes will lead to a "complete, standalone operating system for the open Web."

Although B2G will feature new Web-based APIs (application programming interfaces) that let developers access device hardware to make calls, send texts, take photos and more, Mozilla plans to use bits of Android, including the kernel and device drivers, at the outset.

That could leave Mozilla open to the kind of intense patent litigation Android now faces, said Florian Mueller, an independent patent analyst whose blog FOSS Patents is closely followed by both patent professionals and and technophiles.

"Smartphone operating [system] software faces an incredibly dense patent thicket," said Mueller in an email reply to questions today about B2G. "Mozilla may be able to avoid large parts of the IP issues facing Android by using only certain components and building new software on top of it. But the patent thicket is still there."

Al Hilwa, an analyst with IDC, welcomed B2G to the mobile OS game, but wondered whether Mozilla would be thwarted by lawyers. "Relying on Android IP may be problematic, as it exposes them to some potential legal issues and patent claims," Hilwa said in an email Tuesday.

And even if Mozilla created a complete OS from scratch -- including the boot code that it plans to initially borrow from Android -- it could still face court time, said Mueller. "It's hard to write a competitive smartphone operating system or application without infringing on many patents," he said.

"It's possible that the Mozilla Foundation thinks a non-profit is less likely to be the target of patent infringement lawsuits than a company," Mueller continued. "But Mozilla is a deep-pocketed foundation and the smartphone space is so litigious that I don't believe Mozilla's software will be spared."

At the very least, Mueller said, patent infringement accusations could be made against device manufacturers that adopted the OS that comes out of B2G, much like the patent war Apple and Google have fought partly by proxy, with the former bypassing the latter and suing Android phone and tablet makers such as HTC and Samsung.

Aside from Mozilla's potential patent problems, analysts raised other concerns about the B2G project.

"I can't see that at this point, what with Mozilla's timeline, why a year from now we will need another mobile operating system," said Jack Gold, an analyst with J. Gold Associates. "It's too little, too late. It would have been different if they'd started this a year ago. But I can't see [Mozilla] seriously impacting the sales of Android. It has the same chance as MeeGo to succeed."

That open-source, Linux-based mobile operating system, co-developed by Intel and Nokia, was essentially discarded by Nokia earlier this year when it struck a deal with Microsoft to power future smartphones with the Windows Phone platform.

To Gold, Mozilla's move smacked as much as a challenge to Google and its Chrome OS as an attempt to push the foundation's open-Web agenda.

"This is an extension of Mozilla's war against Google," Gold said. "The battle has taken place in the browser, and now it's moving into the browser OS world. This is like a nipping at the heels of Google."

Mozilla has been losing the browser war, Gold said. In the last 12 months, Mozilla's Firefox lost 9% of its usage share, according to metrics company Net Applications. During the same period, Google's Chrome almost doubled its share.

Hilwa was more bullish on Mozilla's long-term chances.

"There is a transformation to move more and more of our data, content and device engagement to the cloud," Hilwa noted. "This means light-weight interfaces on light-weight operating systems have a chance to break through in the next few years."

"But how does Mozilla compete here?" countered Gold. "If you assume that the future OSes will be browser- and Web-centric, then [a Mozilla OS] has some possibilities.... But I don't think you can make that assumption."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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