Tired of Android? Try your luck with Sailfish OS, Ubuntu Touch, and Firefox OS

Running Firefox OS

Mozilla's approach to the smartphone market is a bit different from Canonical's or Jolla's. Instead of aiming for a system that looks nice and is feature rich, Mozilla engaged in a race to the bottom of the bargain bin – an OS that can run on the cheapest, slowest phones – in a bid to win over users in developing markets. The box titled "Installing Firefox OS" describes how to install the operating system on a Nexus 4.

Installing Firefox OS

The first step toward installing Firefox OS is to download its system file [6]. Once the download is complete, plug your phone into your computer and reboot it into the bootloader:

$ adb reboot bootloader

Now, you have to download the ClockworkMod Recovery [2] (CWM), and install it by typing:

$ fastboot flash recovery \
  <your_recovery_image>.img

Replace <your_recovery_image>.img with the name of the image file you just downloaded. Once the custom recovery has been flashed, tap the Volume Down key twice until Recovery is highlighted, and press the Power button to confirm your choice. Once your phone has booted into the custom recovery, go ahead and press wipe data/factory reset (Figure 4). After the data has been wiped, push the file onto your phone:

$ adb push <FFOS>.zip /sdcard/

Replace <FFOS>.zip with the name of the Firefox OS zip you just downloaded. Then go to the install zip option and tap on select zip from SD card. After selecting the option choose zip from /sdcard/, and choose the zip file you just pushed onto your phone.

Firefox OS is now installed on your Nexus 4! Go ahead and reboot.

Firefox OS (Figure 3, right) is based on the Boot2Gecko project developed by Mozilla and was first released in April 2013. Like Ubuntu Touch, the system itself is completely open source and uses open standards.

Because of the very low requirements needed for Firefox OS to run on devices, the interface is simple … and ugly, very ugly. Icon designs in the home screen (Figure 6, right) are garish and quite an eyesore. Navigation around the UI is similar to iOS, with a central Home button overlaid on the screen and all other navigation buttons placed inside the individual applications. Long-pressing the Home button takes you to the app switcher (Figure 5, right), which is as basic as everything else in the system. There's not much to customize here, at least not easily, apart from wallpapers and sounds, but dive in deep, and you can change as many things as you want – if you know how, of course.

Interestingly the app situation is the best out of the three systems I tested, even if it is only because Firefox OS has been around the longest. Applications are similar in nature to the web apps of Ubuntu Touch, although they do run a bit more smoothly, which is good because the OS itself is very light on apps, not even featuring a terminal or calculator applications out of the box.

Firefox OS still has a long way to go with its app store, though, with many large apps such as Instagram or WhatsApp missing (at least officially), although I did find an official Telegram web app.

The lightness of the system means it runs blazingly fast. Apps open quickly and animations are smooth. Firefox OS is also the stablest of the three systems tested.

The problem is that all of this means nothing if few phones ship with Firefox OS and Android keeps getting slimmer and faster with every release. Right now, Android commands a massive percentage of the developing market, and Firefox OS hasn't made much of a dent in it, even though it has been out for more than two years.

Getting Back to Android

If you're tired of playing with your custom OS, it's pretty easy to flash Android back onto your Nexus.

The first thing you have to do is download an appropriate version of Android [7] for your device. Once that's done, simply reboot into the bootloader, either by holding the Volume Down and Power buttons when the phone is turned off or via ADB:

$ adb reboot bootloader

After your phone has booted into the bootloader, it is as simple as uncompressing the file you just downloaded and running the flash-all script included in it.

$ ./flash-all

Now you are back to where you were at the beginning of this article.

Conclusion

Firefox OS, although it is the most mature of the three, is by far the biggest eyesore; Sailfish OS, though pretty, is the buggiest, most featureless, and deficient system I have ever run on a mobile phone. Ubuntu Touch is simply a joy and deserves to be the fourth contender in the mobile market.

Figure 4: ClockworkMod custom recovery running on a Nexus 4.

Infos

  1. Android 4.2.2 system image for the Nexus 4: https://dl.google.com/dl/android/aosp/occam-jdq39-factory-345dc199.tgz
  2. ClockworkMod custom Recovery for the Nexus 4: http://builder.unstableapps.com/#/latest/clockworkmodrecovery/mako
  3. CyanogenMod version 10.1.3 install file for the Nexus 4: http://download.cyanogenmod.org/get/jenkins/42526/cm-10.1.3-mako.zip
  4. Sailfish OS install file directory for the Nexus 4: http://images.devaamo.fi/sfa/mako/
  5. Ubuntu Touch: https://developer.ubuntu.com/en/start/ubuntu-for-devices/
  6. Firefox OS install file for the Nexus 4: http://forum.xda-developers.com/devdb/project/dl/?id=9351
  7. Stock Android images for Nexus: https://developers.google.com/android/nexus/images

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