The app formerly known as PhoneGap (now Apache Cordova) started out with a very telling name. PhoneGap/Cordova bridges the gap between a native application's and a browser's access to device APIs, thereby allowing you to develop apps in pure HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript. In addition, you can wrap up and deploy your web-standards-based application to an app store.

But a native OS could provide the same API through the browser. The major drawback to this approach is the loss of revenue generated by the app store through app purchases and in-app purchases. This gives little incentive for OS manufacturers to implement these APIs through the browser. But let’s re-imagine the app store in the cloud for a moment and see how browser support for native APIs could enable this.

Mobile Devices as a Portal

A recent article on Technorati described Google’s new hardware offering which essentially provides a “portal into Google-land.” Chrome essentially becomes the OS for the device and Google Drive becomes the hard-drive. Expanding this idea into the mobile realm is not difficult to imagine, but what value does this provide other than giving us a common place to store documents and photos?

Right now the focus of the cloud in terms of consumers has seemed to revolve around storage. How can I get all of my “stuff” in one place where I can access it from anywhere? Think DropBox, Google Drive, etc. This is an interesting problem, but only the beginning. The next step is taking our Apps and making them accessible from anywhere. After buying a new App for my phone, it would be great if I had immediate access to this same App from my other devices, my tablet, my laptop, etc. and vice versa without the need to download anything on those devices.

App Store in the Cloud

Chrome recently released the ability to login, making your tabs and bookmarks accessible across all devices that are running Chrome. This is a novel concept and could be further applied to the App Store. The starting point in your browser could be a layout of all of the Apps that you have purchased and would look very similar to the native OS representation of your App icons. In addition, one of those Apps could guide you to the App Store which allows you to purchase these Apps. Each App then runs directly in your browser and stores all its data on an external server.

This may appear to have little value initially, but now I could login to my tablet and immediately have access to the same App that I just purchased through its browser. All of my data would be accessible and there is no requirement to find and download anything further. By implementing Apps using web standards (HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript), the adjustment between devices could all be handled through styling differences. This allows the OS manufacturers to continue to reap revenue from App store purchases, while giving the consumer the advantage of ubiquitous access to their Apps. You could even imagine a pricing model that differs based on which devices you want to enable access from.

The Future is Here, Almost

Firefox OS takes exactly this approach. From the introduction:

The idea is essentially to have all user-accessible software running on the phone be a Web app that uses advanced HTML5 techniques and device APIs to access the phone’s hardware directly via JavaScript. For Web developers, the most important part to understand is that the entire user interface is a Web app, one that is capable of displaying and launching other Web apps. Any modifications you make to the user interface and any applications you create to run on Firefox OS are Web pages, albeit with enhanced access to the mobile device’s hardware and services.

To publish a web application as a Firefox OS App, you simply have to add an app manifest, “a JSON file that describes your app, including its name, its icons, and a human-readable description.” The Marketplace then uses the information provided by the manifest to publish your web application to Firefox OS users.

Firefox OS will likely spurn competition between the OS manufacturers and it appears that Google is already making inroads into the approach with their recent releases. At the moment, the following issues remain although several will likely be solved in the next few years:

  • Native APIs – the Android and iOS browsers just don’t have access to them… yet. Apache Cordova has been a well-recognized stop-gap approach, but as browsers continue to adapt, will no longer be necessary in the future.
  • Performance – Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently discussed the issues with browser performance on mobile devices after choosing HTML5 as their strategic approach. This will only improve as time goes on and devices become more capable.
  • Connectivity – ubiquitous connectivity just doesn’t exist yet. In the basement of the parking garage, on a remote island… still having access to certain applications is beneficial in these scenarios.
  • Games – as with desktop computing, games require an extensive amount of native API access and have performance requirements that put general Apps to shame. Unless there are breakthroughs in SVG support that make gaming a snap in the browser, games will likely remain native.

Being a believer in web standards and seeing the exciting possibilities of HTML5, Firefox OS truly presents a breath of fresh air. Let’s hope that the other OS manufacturers take notice.