Firefox OS – Does it Stack up to Android and iOS?

For those who aren’t aware, Firefox OS is an operating system created to rival the likes of Android and iOS. The way it approaches this is quite different from its competitors – the entire operating system in FireFox OS is actually a web application, using FireFox’s own Gecko rendering engine and other technologies. This makes the platform much more lightweight and scalable than Android or iOS, and because of this, FireFox OS was initially targeted to the large demographics in non-Western countries that normally can’t afford a smartphone at all.

For the past weekend, I ran FireFox OS on my Nexus 5, running developer nightly builds from XDA while using the ElementalX Kernel and TWRP Recovery. During this time, I’ve attempted to use FireFox OS as a daily driver over my Nexus 5’s Android 5.1, and from that I have gathered all the information I need to review the operating system.

firefoxos-lockscreen

Firefox OS’s interface is the main reason I was drawn to testing the OS. As of the latest build, Firefox OS is very brightly colored, reminiscent of iOS 8 and Android 5’s respective jumps from robotic, utilitarian designs to something naturally more evocative of nature or materials.

firefoxos-homescreensimplified

You can imagine my dismay, then, when this turned out to be purely on a cosmetic level. Digging into the interface is more like early Android/iPhone. Swipe-down is limited to single-icon toggles, with most advanced options requiring a full trip into settings.

Firefox OS’s advanced settings, unfortunately, doesn’t have either of the pros the big two can boast. iOS sacrifices customizability for simplicity, while Android does the opposite. Firefox OS is neither simple or extensively customizable, feeling needlessly complex with nothing to truly show for it.

firefoxos-texting

But perhaps that doesn’t matter. Maybe all you really want out of your phone is to browse the Internet, call and make texts. That’s general usage, after all, just behind messaging applications and the occasional app or game. We’ll get into those later, but for now let’s touch on perhaps the most important part of this review.

It suffers from the same issues that plagued early iOS versions. All navigation is done with a single button at the bottom of the screen and whatever the app in question provides. Most of these navigational options, like a basic “Back” button, rest firmly at the top-left hand corner of the screen, making it incredibly uncomfortable to use one-handed for right-handed users, with lefties being less affected. The Nexus 5 I use is also a relatively large phone, but even Apple has relented to one-hand navigation in the form of a “Back” gesture supported by iOS 8.

FireFox OS looks pretty, but unfortunately it is only on a surface level. There is neither a significant amount of depth or customization to back up the pretty colors.

firefoxos-ecosystem

The most popular applications for FireFox OS are messaging applications. There are no high-end games to be played here or sleek, streamlined content streaming. Just about everything you find on FireFox OS’ app store could just as easily be done in a browser, and in a manner of speaking it is, as these applications act upon the same HTML5 that the rest of the system uses. Most of the applications are little more than ports of mobile versions of popular websites, lacking the features offered by native applications in Android or iOS.

Particularly egregious are the Facebook and YouTube “apps”,which are almost entirely unchanged from what you would get browsing those sites on a mobile browser. The App Ecosystem for FireFox OS is tiny and virtually nonexistent, and even if it weren’t, it would simply be filled with basic 2D dime-a-dozen games and a thousand applications for different websites and services, all paling pathetically in comparison to traditional “native” applications because the operating system simply is not made to use the hardware in the manner that Android or iOS does.

I have said a lot of harsh words toward FireFox OS in this review, but there is one thing that should be understood here: FireFox OS isn’t for me.

FireFox OS is for demographics too poor to afford traditional smartphones, even low-end Android devices. FireFox OS is not targeted at competing with Apple, Samsung and the others. FireFox OS is a simple mobile OS made for low-powered devices as a step up from the “feature phones” of old. FireFox OS isn’t a competitor because it isn’t competing.

That said, I still feel like it could have done better. Being an OS based on Gecko doesn’t excuse the lack of easy navigation or lazily-ported apps. With some tweaks to navigation and some better applications, FireFox OS would be perfectly fine for low-end phones that aren’t intended to compete with higher-end devices.

Given the choice, I’d take an ancient Android device or old iPhone over an FFOS phone. FFOS isn’t quite targeted at people who can make that choice, though.

5 comments

  1. Any alternatives that allow uBlock and Ghostery? That’s the only reason for using Firefox!

    Ghostery has it’s own Android brouwser but I find uBlock not less important, eg. to block that ‘from the web/promoted content’ shit.

  2. > iOS sacrifices customizability for simplicity, while Android does the opposite.

    You can achieve simplicity via customizability. The opposite is impossible. Checkmate atheists.

    • “You can achieve simplicity via customizability.”
      I wonder what dictionary you base that statement on?

      Simplicity – freedom from complexity, intricacy, or division into parts.
      Customizability involves complexity. The more you customize, the more complex the application becomes to use and to write. I learned that over many years as an applications developer.

      • Dont’ mind Deere.

        He or she is probably one of those ppl that can’t stand any “negative” comments on Apple.
        Simplicity is imho not the same as simple and low. It is more “Easy to use” and isn’t negative at all.
        When designing a User Interface of User Experience I always try to make thing simple to use without destroying the complexity of the requested solution. Looking at an iPhone in this way I think they did great job.

        I have an iPhone 5 with iOS 8 for my work and an android 5 tablet private. So I use both platforms and agree with what you and Christopher state concerning simplicity and complexity in those systems is correct.
        Sometimes I feel that my iPhone is to simple in its settings and miss some setting that I can change in Android. On the other hand I often have a hard time finding the correct setting on my Android.

        To have an in-between level like the Firefox OS seems to have would do me a favor.

  3. I would like to see Firefox become a legitimate mobile operating system, but what they have achieved thus far seems more a side project rather that a real attempt at making a useable OS. They’ve only decided to dip their toe into the water, but timidity isn’t going to win the day. Either go all in and make a real OS, or don’t bother.

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