Dev

Mozilla’s newest release will let you build Firefox OS apps on the web

Above: Home screen on Firefox OS

Image Credit: Jolie O'Dell / VentureBeat

In a bid for hobbyists and emerging markets, Mozilla plans to include an integrated development environment (IDE) for Firefox OS in upcoming releases of the Firefox browser. In other words, you’ll have a way to code apps directly from Firefox, no extra software required.

Mozilla is throwing the weight of its flagship browser behind Firefox OS, the non-profit’s nascent competitor to iOS and Android, by including the tools for would-be programmers to build their own mobile apps using the Firefox browser itself.

In the new development environment, called WebIDE, users will be able to test HTML5 and JavaScript on a simulated Firefox OS screen. Or they can run code on a handset connected to the computer by USB — and access the accelerometer, compass and other specialized mobile hardware.

“It makes it very easy to become a publisher,” said Mozilla’s Christian Heilmann, who goes by the title principal developer evangelist, in a chat with VentureBeat. “It’s more important that people have a good idea for an app rather than learning a new environment.”

As apps have become a key way to experience the web, Heilmann said, the associated training and created barriers to entry for developers who in a previous era could have participated using little more than a text editor and a browser.

“We wanted to build an environment where being a participant on the open web was as easy as it was in the past,” he said. “We are bringing the Firefox browser in line with that philosophy.”

The new developer tools are now available in Firefox Nightly, a release used to test new code before it’s more widely released. The feature will be included in the regular download of the browser within the next few iterations, Heilmann said, and possibly in the upcoming Firefox 31.

Firefox OS has been in development since 2011, but competing with the vast ecosystem of apps and developers associated with iOS and Android presents a nearly impossible challenge. The operating system has only gained a significant foothold in a handful of less developed markets, where low-cost devices running the system reportedly captured up to tenth of sales during 2013—one reason why Mozilla is keen to woo programmers in communities where hardware and software resources are limited.

“Many developers for Firefox OS are working in an environment where they cannot obtain new development resources,” Heilmann said. “We want to make sure that all the tools they need are inside Firefox itself. That was the original promise of the web.”

The long term plan, Heilmann said, is even more ambitious. Soon, he hopes that WebIDE will be able to produce apps not just for Firefox OS, but for iOS and Android devices as well.

“We want to make this functionality available for every platform out there,” Heilmann said.

Jon Christian is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, Mass. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Week, and Wired.

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