Mozilla kills Firefox OS, proves IoT isn’t a salve for bad ideas

Mozilla has admitted that it has closed down its Connected Devices division – the group that inherited Firefox OS after Mozilla abandoned its plans to challenge the smartphone incumbents in emerging markets. It’s unclear if Mozilla ever had much zeal for the IoT, but if its ambitions were sincere, its failure proves that you can’t simply jump on the IoT bandwagon in an attempt to turn things around.

Mozilla, a non-profit most famous for its Firefox browser, has been losing ground to Google’s Chrome browser for years. Away from PC web browsers, it suffered similar problems in mobile, and was looking for a way to expand its business. This drive led to the creation of Firefox OS, an operating system targeted at super low cost smartphones, but after struggling for a year, Mozilla pivoted Firefox OS into the IoT.

We can’t be sure that the IoT plan wasn’t anything more than an attempt to save face in the wake of its mobile campaign, but the project did look to have some early success and traction with developers. Project Link was an attempt to create a personal user agent for automating interactions with devices in the world around you. Project Sensor Web was an attempt to create a crowdsourced sensor data platform, and Project Smart Home aimed to create a common platform for Mozilla to offer to smart home developers, as a kind of abstracted middle-man.

But those projects will shortly be no more. “We have shifted our internal approach to the IoT opportunity to step back from a focus on launching and scaling commercial products to one focused on research and advanced development, dissolving our connected devices initiative and incorporating our IoT explorations into an increased focus on emerging technologies,” said Mozilla, in an email statement.

It’s unclear what Mozilla is now looking to target, as most people would agree that the IoT is still very much in the ‘emerging’ phase of its existence.  Some 50 staff are said to be being laid off, as well as Ari Jaaksi, the SVP of the Connected Devices division.

To an extent, this proves that the IoT isn’t something that you turn to as a backup plan – something done on the side, away from your main gig that’s paying the bills. For dedicated companies, Mozilla might serve as an example or evidence to suggest that even experienced firms aren’t able to easily grasp and tackle the challenges of the IoT – and turn them into successes.

It should be noted that Firefox OS has had a very troubled history. Originally designed as a means to combat Android, it was launched in 2013 and aimed to gain a foothold in emerging markets that were not so entrenched in the iOS-Android dichotomy. That plan for $25 smartphones didn’t pan out, and the OS was adapted to power other devices – finding its way into Panasonic’s 4K smart TVs of all things.

The smartphone OS was designed to focus on open web standards, with less of a focus on applications, favoring web-apps and browser-heavy usage. The core components of it were evidently capable of powering TVs, but Mozilla was also attempting to push the OS into other home devices – mostly with a consumer focus.

Back in February, we covered Firefox’s pivot, where George Rotor noted that “the circumstances of multiple established operating systems and app ecosystems meant that we were playing catch-up, and the conditions were not there for Mozilla to win on commercial smartphones. We have decided that in order to succeed in the new area of Connected Devices we must focus our energy completely on prototyping the future and exploring how we can make the biggest impact in IoT.”

Evidently, Mozilla has decided to simply wind the division down rather than spend any more resources trying to make it work. A cynic would question how much effort was spent in actually crafting the OS into a viable platform that might have been adopted, but Firefox OS was up against Android and Linux, as well as smaller RTOS platforms in the IoT device market.

Consequently, we have to conclude that this looks like a sensible business decision for Mozilla. In the December 2015 announcement of the IoT project, we noted that the company had to persuade skeptics that it had the embedded, silicon, and resource-constrained expertise to design for the IoT. By the looks of things, Mozilla failed in that regard, and is now refocusing its efforts on combatting its shrinking web browser market share.