The way we spend our time online is changing fast. While the browser still reigns supreme, more and more people are getting their online fix using apps. Mozilla, the folks behind the popular Firefox browser, has now announced the start of a new project to develop an app-centric, completely open, web-based phone and tablet operating system called Boot to Gecko (B2G).

There are, of course, a good many tried and tested mobile operating systems already out there already but useful apps created for one operating environment are not going to work on another. As a developer, if you want your killer app on an iPhone and a Samsung Galaxy S then you'll need to effectively create your innovation twice, or more, using different SDK's.

Rather than confine application development to vendor-specific operating environments like iOS, Android, WP7, webOS, the much-maligned Symbian and so on, the B2G project is looking to develop a complete, standalone operating system that will give developers the tools they need to create locally-cached apps at least as capable as native device applications but that will work across mobile platforms.

Open from day one

While the similarly cloud-based Google Chrome OS heads mostly for netbook-like devices, Mozilla has its eyes on the phone/tablet arena for B2G. Unlike other so-called open source developments in that area, though, B2G's code - built around the Gecko engine that drives its Firefox browser and Thunderbird email client - will be available for all to see from the start.

"We want to do Boot to Gecko the way we think open source should be done," says the project's Andreas Gal. "In the open, from day one, for everyone to see and participate."

As a starting point, the team intends to re-use a small portion of the lower layers of the Android OS. According to the project's Mike Shaver, this only represents the kernel and device drivers, in addition to libc and some ancillary bits and pieces. Although test hardware hasn't yet been chosen, the team says that it's likely that Tegra 2 devices will be chosen for initial rounds because of its support for hardware acceleration of open audio/video formats.

Developers will need to build entirely new web developer tools - as opposed to vendor-specific SDK's - that will allow B2G users to make phone calls, send text messages, take a photo and present a gallery of images, read e-books, play games, utilize near-field communications technology, and all of the other things we've come to expect from our mobile devices.

The project is still very much in its early stages at the moment, being driven by a four-man development team on a part-time basis but could mushroom very quickly as it gathers pace and veer off at any point into wholly unexplored territory. While the project infrastructure gets cemented in place, Mozilla is appealing for ideas and contributions from the online community.

Mozilla's B2G project is also looking for inspiration from and collaboration with other projects such as Chrome OS and Webian, folks at the latter having already expressed an interest in helping via the project development thread.

Huge undertaking

The B2G project is a huge undertaking for Mozilla and will clearly take more than a team of four to oversee the building of an operating system from scratch. That said, the collaborative community approach has proved quite successful for the non-profit group in the past and has also had positive knock-on effects for users of products from other brands - just look how other browser vendors upped their respective games when Firefox started snapping their market share heels.

Anyone else interested in either following or joining in with the development of B2G can find more information at the dedicated Mozilla Wiki page.

If you're wondering, the project team says that Mozilla has no plans to release a Firefox phone.