Firefox aims for ‘many devices, one web’ experience

16 Oct 2008

Up until recently, web browser developers have more or less seen the mobile handset as an afterthought as opposed to a serious platform, but when the iPhone came along with Safari, this was the impetus for change.

At the same time as Apple’s mobile version of Safari arrived on the scene, Mozilla was also looking seriously at bringing a rounded user experience to the mobile web browser, and at the time, back in October 2007, Mike Schroepfer, Mozilla’s vice-president of engineering said that mobile devices had become a top priority for the organisation behind the popular open source browser, Firefox.

Roll the clocks forward a year later and Mozilla has indeed been working hard on its Firefox Mobile (codenamed Fennec), with an alpha version expected sometime this week, according to Christian Sejersen, mobile director of engineering on Mozilla Mobile.

If Safari has already brought a decent browsing experience to the touchscreen, widescreen iPhone, then what can Firefox bring to the average modern handset? Well, according to Sejersen, the way Mozilla looks at it is, there is no mobile web: “There’s only one web and we want to provide access to this one web where Firefox can render the exact same page on the mobile phone with the same rendering technology.”

The difference here is that, as Schroepfer has observed, the mobile has become a ‘tier one’ priority for Mozilla: “The mobile browser shares the same code as the latest version of Firefox for the desktop, so it will benefit from all the good things such as HTML 5 and added security.

“What we have said before is that Firefox Mobile will be afforded the same first-class citizen status as the desktop version, and not one version behind like most other web browser developers do,” explained Sejersen.

As for the platform for the forthcoming mobile browser, Sejersen said that Mozilla is initially targeting the N810 (pictured), which is Linux-based and has open access to APIs (application programming interfaces) and the OS (operating system), but also has a large touch screen as its development platform.

Further down the line, Firefox Mobile will be made available for both touch and non-touch versions of Windows Mobile. After that, Sejersen said that although Mozilla hasn’t made a commitment as of yet, the Symbian phone will most likely follow.

As regards Google’s Android, he said Mozilla is doing nothing right now or in the near future. As for the iPhone, it is a complete no for two reasons: firstly the fact that developers cannot create an application that replicates the functionality of a pre-existing Apple one, and secondly because Apple also does not allow apps that run any code in the background because of the way the licence terms are written.

With regard to extra functionality over the Mozilla Firefox Mobile browser, Sejersen said that if a company like Adobe provide the Flash plug-in from its end, then Firefox will provide the plug-in mechanism, but, he reckons, one of the most important aspects is the added security features.

“There is not a lot of focus around security on the mobile right now; people think about it on desktop and laptop a lot, but as far as I know, I haven’t seen a security update for the mobile platform yet, and we carry a lot of personal information around with us on our phones so there is a need for this.”

The beta version of Firefox Mobile will be released before the year is out and is expected to come out of beta testing some time in 2009.

By Marie Boran

Pictured: the Nokia N810 tablet, the first mobile device to run Firefox Mobile