Firefox OS Comes To Raspberry Pi
Written by Ian Elliot   
Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Firefox OS hasn't taken over the world yet despite its promise. Now we have a small effort from Mozilla to make it run on one of the most successful budget devices in the world - the Raspberry Pi.

Firefox OS is Mozilla's browser based OS. It consists of a Linux core with a UI provided by Gecko - essentially a Linux hosted Firefox browser. Firefox OS is targeted at mobile devices but it is suitable for any small system - like a Raspberry Pi.

The effort to bring Firefox OS to the Pi has been going on for some time but MozFest 2014 (October 24-26) seems to have spurred some progress and a definite direction.  However this said, if you are an outsider it is still difficult to figure out exactly what is going on. 

Firefox OS on Raspberry Pi is codenamed Foxberry Pi and at the moment getting started with it is for experts only - you have to flash an image onto an SD card following some not-so-clear instructions. 

What seems  to be new is a demo version of Foxberry Pi that can be installed under Raspbian. It makes use of WebIOPi which is provides a web UI directly into the GPIO - something that is useful to know about in its own right. The instructions for installation are fairly simple but things are still clearly very experimental and it is suggested that you try it all out with a simple LED and switch circuit.





This  all sounds exciting but you need to read the listed limitations: 

  • The Firefox OS build included in the image is very old
  • Not all device capabilities are exposed through Web APIs
  • No mouse or keyboard support
  • Display can't be remoted
  • On at least one TV used as output display, graphics are glitchy: left side of viewport is clipped, and right side is offset from right edge of TV leaving blank space
  • Slow and buggy

It seems that all you can do is modify a JavaScript file that works with the GPIO and press a switch to reload it. Not the full Firefox OS experience. 

This isn't impressive if you plan to actually use the software for anything. If you take a look at the state of the real Foxberry Pi the main problem seems to be that the graphics don't work. 

Exactly where the non-demo "real" version has got to is difficult to discover. Status updates suggest that the GPU has been disabled and this is resulting in poor performance.

According to the  technical road map, the aim is to get rid of Raspbian and run the lower layers of the OS under a custom version of Gonk, the Linux kernel that Firefox OS relies on for low level services. The idea is that once Gonk works then the rest of the OS will work without modification and hence the system can take advantage of updates from Mozilla. 

What all this means is that if you are interested in using Firefox OS to develop apps you are going to have to wait until some time next year because currently the Foxberry Pi images are really only for anyone wanting to help get the system working properly. 

Why is Firefox OS on the Pi such a big deal?

The key reason for wanting it is that Firefox OS apps are developed in HTML, CSS and JavaScript. That is, web apps are native for Firefox OS. This makes it much easier to develop GUI and touch based apps. Adding hardware access to the system means that you could build IoT type applications in JavaScript and have all the support that a full browser provides. Add to this the ability to run any Firefox OS apps and you can see that the system has a lot going for it. 

On the negative side the Pi isn't really a powerful computer. If you try to run the Firefox browser on it you will discover that it is too slow for most things. Firefox OS has been optimized for lower-powered hardware, but it is still demanding. Recent Firefox OS phones have been criticized for being so slow as to be unusable.  

What is very clear is that without the GPU driver the whole idea is a non-starter. With the driver we might have an idea of how fast the whole thing would work, and hence the chances that it would turn out to be a worthwhile effort. 

At the moment, however, it has to be said that all we really have is a promise to make the system work some time in 2015. It is also difficult to gauge how much official Mozilla support the project is getting - as all of the information is coming from the Mozilla Wiki.



I guess it all depends on how difficult it turns out to be to get the graphics drivers working. If you feel like helping, the project will be more than happy. 


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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 28 October 2014 )