Keon and Peak: Two Firefox OS smartphones tested

Fast Updates

Mozilla is working hard on the options issue, too. When the phones were delivered to our editorial office in Germany, for example, there was neither a German keyboard layout for the virtual on-screen keyboard nor German language localization. This arrived shortly before the deadline in the form of an update.

The functionality of this first version is roughly to what you would expect from a smartphone today: an address book application with support for a local address book and an import function for importing contacts from the SIM card and Facebook contacts. Unfortunately, no other contact sources can be integrated.

The calendar app can manage a local or network-based calendar by Google, Yahoo, or CalDAV. The options for calendar entries are still very limited; for example, the application does not support regular dates.

Minimal Software

The remaining pre-installed applications, such as the media player, camera, and gallery, are fairly rudimentary but fine for their initial purpose. However, the Keon did not play any movies. The phone played back the sound, but the screen stayed black. An email client is also available, but it does not support SSL for connecting to a mail server; its use is thus not recommended for security reasons.

As a source for other applications, you have two options: First, an externally maintained bookmark collection has dozens of links to websites with web apps that developers have tested on Firefox OS. You can create shortcuts on the home screen, which – like bookmarks – point to the actual online services; they are not usable without an online connection. A second source is the Firefox OS Marketplace, which is considered an example of a possible implementation of an app store. Here, you can pick up packaged applications that install all of their data locally on the phone and thus work, at least in principle, without an active Internet connection. It is difficult for users to tell at run time whether an icon is just a bookmark or a packaged app.

Early Bird – Not All OSS

You will notice the early stage of development in other areas as well, for example, the Peak's higher resolution screen causes problems in some applications because the fonts are too small. Apparently Firefox OS does not evaluate the DPI correctly in some places. Also, the scrolling behavior sometimes feels strange, in that the scrolling content moves faster than your finger moves on the screen. These two effects were only observed with the Peak, not with the Keon.

Mozilla promises that Firefox OS will be based on open standards and open source software. That is true for all layers from Gonk upward, but lower down, things look less open. The basic sources for the B2G build system are available on GitHub [6]. The config.sh script pulls in the other repositories and downloads the content – more than 13GB of source code. Many of these sources come from Android's open source project, and B2G uses them to build the basic Linux system, to which libc or the shell belong, for example.

Within the source code, you will also find a vendor subdirectory that contains about 20MB of binary files (in the case of the Peak), for which there seems to be no source code. They implement hardware-related functions, on which Gonk builds, and were originally developed and offered for Android by Qualcomm.

You can't blame Mozilla for this; the Foundation does not really want to develop hardware drivers. The trick of using the existing Android drivers is quite clever, but if you're a free software enthusiast, it will tend to leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Realistically, however, it should be clear that implementing a modern smartphone with completely free software is practically impossible given the current state of development. Whenever a hardware accelerator for the graphical user interface or multimedia support enters the game, free software usually has a tough time.

A subsequent call to the build.sh script also taps the Android Debug Bridge (ADB) to download more than 250MB of data to a connected Keon or Peak phone. To compile the operating system manually, the developer must therefore own one of these phones and have the Android Development Tools in place to retrieve the data via ADB. At least, however, you can use the Debug Bridge for your future application development.

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