Do we need another mobile OS? Mozilla thinks so

Updated: For the last year, Mozilla has been looking to build a mobile operating system as part of its “Boot to Gecko” project. Today at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the first fruits of that effort appeared, with the news of a partnership with Spanish operator Telefónica to build out a new generation of handsets that have web technologies at the core.

The project, which is being dubbed “Open Web Devices,” uses the Android Linux kernel but has an entirely new layer on top that puts HTML5 in the spotlight. It’s essentially a complete phone system run on web technologies that gives the on-board software access to core APIs through an embedded version of Firefox. That, in turn, means all apps on the phone essentially run in the browser.

While the proof of the pudding is in the eating — and the devices themselves won’t be out until later this year — the big question has to be whether the world needs another mobile operating system.

For consumers, the answer is decidedly unclear. They’re already fleeing a multitude of setups toward the top of the chain, in the sort of tectonic shift that has left long-term players like Research in Motion (s:rimm) and Nokia all at sea.

For operators, though, it could actually make some sense to back this scheme: rather than be cut out entirely of the revenue loop with customers almost entirely (as has happened with Apple (s:aapl) and Android (s:goog) ), they can potentially be a greater part of development and therefore win a slice of revenue from apps and other additions. That’s great news for the likes of Telefónica, the world’s third largest operator, and the owner of major brands like O2, which has been having a tough few years.

But can it really work?

Remember, this approach has been tried before — sort of — by Palm, which developed it’s own webOS as a way of using a suite of web technologies to power the handset. For all the plaudits that initiative won the company (our own Kevin Tofel was a fan), it simply couldn’t stop the company’s slide — which eventually ended with a fire sale to HP (s: hpq), which then promptly underwent its own internal crisis, let Palm wither and saw senior staff such as Jon Rubinstein leave.

And although HP shopped webOS around to try and offload it, it was ultimately unsuccessful. And with nobody taking the bait the company considered shutting it down completely, before finally taking the move to open source the system just before Christmas.

That is not to say Mozilla’s effort is doomed to failure. The world, and web tech, has moved on significantly since Palm launched webOS, and Mozilla has a different structure — and different incentives for success. But the smartphone market’s incredibly crowded already with iOS, Android, Windows Phone and BlackBerry all trading blows. What do these Open Web Devices need to do to stand out?

Article corrected to OWD is based on the Linux kernel, not Android.