Grokking Android

Getting Down to the Nitty Gritty of Android Development

FirefoxOS – my Initial Impression


Quite a while ago I ordered a Peak+ FirefoxOS phone at Alas after some delay it finally was cancelled - so I settled for the smaller version, the normal Peak. About a week or two ago it finally was delivered. After some very short initial testing I had more pressing things to do. But this week I gave it another look. Here are my initial impressions - mostly of FirefoxOS and less of the Peak itself.

The phone itself

I was quite suprised by the size of the device. It's roughly the same as the N5 - though the screen is much smaller and the screen resolution even more so. That's not so good - but it's a dev phone, so it's not really that important. But for any handset maker out there: If your screen doesn't provide the resolutions current top devices spout, please make your device smaller.

Of course the phone is plastic all around - it's after all a cheap phone. I do not mind. I never thought, that plastic feels cheap. Actually I prefer plastic over metal or - even worse - glass. So it feels quite good - albeit a tiny bit too large. Some rubberized finish would be a nice addition, though.

The screen is surprisingly good. Of course the resolution is far away from those of top device, but mostly good enough. Only for screens with much text, the resolution is an issue.

The camera of course isn't great - but for simple snapshots it should be sufficient. You won't ever win a price with those pictures though.

Battery life: Seems to be good, very good indeed. But that's just an initial impression. I have yet to make the phone my primary device for a few days. Something I am not quite ready to do so, yet. You will see in the next section, why not.

UX issues

FirefoxOS is full of UX issues. I'm a developer and definitely no UX expert. But even I can spot many problems. Users will notice, will stumble upon those issues and think that something's not right. So in my opinion, Mozilla should concentrate on those issues - especially some stuff that from an outside perspective looks like something that should be easy to fix. Of course I know that this outside perspective is often misleading, but hopefully some issues are easy to fix.

Touch feedback is rare. Which is a deadly sin for a touch based interface. Take the Action Bar (in FirefoxOS slang it's the Header). When I hit back in the top left corner, I want to see the back indicator highlighted. But that's not happening. So did I touch it? Should I touch again? And it's not just in the FirefoxOS Header.

Missing touch feedback is sometimes made worse by a lacking loading indicator. I want to see a spinning wheel or some other indicator that content is loading - let me know that you do something. I hit back twice over and over because I had no feedback whatsoever.

Firefox Marketplace app lacks touch feedback as well as loading indicators all over the place. And the app doesn't seem to cache anything. It feels like the app reloads all lists whenever I go back to them. That slows things down considerably and make missing feedback even worse.

The next issue might partially be based on my Android experience. But whatever the reason: I miss the back button dearly. I'm not using "up" often on android and having to go up to the Header/Action Bar feels very weird. But it's not only uncomfortable, it's sometimes even problematic. What to do on with an information dialog? I happened to stumble upon that at least once. Granted, it's the fault of the app, but nevertheless a problem that could be hurting the OS adption.

The lock screen is also a UX fail. You first have to pull up a bar from the bottom - which is nicely indicated by an appropriate animation. But afterwards you have to do another step: You have to click on the unlock icon. Two steps to unlock the phone? That's one step too much. As simple as that!

The list of opened apps also has a problem. There's a button to close this app - which works more or less randomly. Swiping the app away, though, works fine all the time.

I had some trouble with flinging through lists. One problem: When flinging repeatedly in long lists, the flow stops. Don't know how to describe this correctly. But the new movement of my finger stops the last one and starts a new fling. That feels very unnatural. It doesn't feel like a continuing movement.

Another one is the notifications drawer. You have to drag it all the way down to see the top most notification. Which is bad if you just want to peek at the notification. It feels totally strange to have to scroll that far to finally see the one notification that caused you to use the notification drawer in the first place.

The on screen keyboard also feels kind of weird to me. Cannot exactly nail it, but it just doesn't feel right. Of course on Android I swipe most of the time, but it's not just that. The spacing between keys is very narrow, but I guess that isn't it either. Hopefully I can tell you in a follow-up post, what it is that actually bothers me. Right now it's just the feeling: This is not right. The only thinkg, I can tell you for sure, is the surprising location of the "'". It's right next to the letter "l" and directly above the return key. I accidentally hit it way too often.


The general quality of the app is not great - to say the least.

One example: Pulse as one of the top apps promoted in the news category. When starting Pulse for the first time, the first thing you see, is the suggestion to get the app! WTF! I do not know about the reason, but my guess is, that this Pulse "app" is simply the mobile website. Don't know if this is Pulse's fault or Mozilla's fault, but it sheds a bad light on the platform. This shouldn't happen. This mustn't happen!

Next I downloaded a Pomodoro timer and a kitchen timer. Neither of these works when the OS goes into sleep mode. What? A timer not ringing, when the screen turns off? These seem to be apps for a desktop firefox. If they do not work properly on FirefoxOS, those apps shouldn't be available in the marketplace on these devices. Some quality assurance must take care of that. I actually found not one timer app that deals with this correctly.

Another example is the stock Camera app. When taking a photo and viewing it from within the Camera app, I sometimes got a black screen when enlarging the picture. Initially I thought the app just crashed (or run into some endless loop), but all buttons were still visible and reacted properly. Actuall it's just that the screen remains black until the enlarged picture is ready to be displayed. Which can last an astonishingly long time. This is a horrible user experience - just show me some blown up but undetailed preview of the area and display more details progressively.

The Marketplace app itself has problems. I do not want to see many apps, I want to see quality apps. One timer would be enough if it works properly and has at least a decent usability. But about ten timers and none working as expected, that's about as useful as no timer at all. I also do not need all soccer leagues of the world. I want to find the one local to me (granted, some leagues might be more interesting to others worldwide than others, but I gues most people want to see the league of their home country). Same goes for news and anything else. I am still asztonished that Google doesn't provie a better search experience on Google Play, but now I can appreciate what they have been doing. Definitely the results are more relevant than thos in Firefox market place.

Importing stuff

As an Android user I obviously have stuff on Google's server. My contacts, my calendar, mail, what not. I was able to import contacts flawlessly, but strangely enough I couldn't import any calendar information. No error dialog, it simply stopped after I entered all credentials. This is crucial and could be a big issue for FirefoxOS.

And since we're at it: A central account setting makes life so much easier. That's something Android does very well. Not just for Google accounts, mind you. But for any apps that make use of sync adapters and authenticators. It's cumbersome to have to enter the credentials over and over again because there isn't such a central place in FirefoxOS.

Initial verdict

Boy, Mozilla has still a lot to do. I still very much hope for FirefoxOS to succeed. That's why I ordered the phone in the first place. I love Android but Android needs another viable open competitor. Microsoft and Apple obviously do not fit that description.

But to be competitive in the market place, there is still much to do for Mozilla and app devs developing for FirefoxOS.

Then Mozilla needs to adress the usability issues. There are probably many more I didn't even notice. But that's what makes users recommend a system if done right. If done wrong, though, users most probably will advise against buying it. Shouldn't happen.

And of course we do need more apps. For this FirefoxOS has to gain more traction. The usual catch-22 situation of all the follow-up systems in the mobile space. That's something we all can contribute to. If you want FirefoxOS to succeeed, help Mozilla out wth an app or two 🙂

Of course all is open source, so if you want to do so you can also help with all the other issues, I mentioned. Mozilla probably would be very happy about any new contributors to the platform.

This all sounds pretty dim. But you have to consider that it's only an initial impression. Then version 1.2 is in the making and might (hopefully) correct many of the issues. I personally still have hope for the platform. So much actually that I'm giving development for it a try and to publish an app myself. I will let you know about this in a future post. But: This is still an Android centric blog. FirefoxOS related posts will only be sparse in between.

Let me know what you think and what your experience with FirefoxOS has been.

Wolfram Rittmeyer lives in Germany and has been developing with Java for many years.

He has been interested in Android for quite a while and has been blogging about all kind of topics around Android.

You can find him on Google+ and Twitter.