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Mozilla makes Firefox for iOS a priority again

In a major reversal, Firefox's leader tells Mozilla community members he wants the open-source browser on Apple's mobile devices. A better mobile presence is key for Firefox's future.

This tweet shows Johnathan Nightingale, vice president of Firefox at Mozilla, stands in front of a photo of an iPhone at Mozilla's Mozlandia event.
This tweet shows Johnathan Nightingale, vice president of Firefox at Mozilla, standing in front of a photo of an iPhone at the company's Mozlandia event. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Mozilla apparently is trying anew to gain a browser foothold on iOS, the operating system that powers Apple's iPhones and iPads.

Johnathan Nightingale, vice president of Firefox at Mozilla, told Mozilla community members about the idea on Tuesday at the non-profit organization's Mozlandia event in Portland, according to Twitter accounts from several at the meeting.

"We need to be where our users are so we're going to get Firefox on iOS," Mozilla Release Manager Lukas Blakk said, apparently giving an account of Nightingale's speech, in a tweet that TechCrunch spotted.

Matthew Ruttley, Mozilla's manager of data science, added, "Firefox for iOS!! Let's do this!!!" in the tweet pictured above. Other Mozilla community members at the event chimed in with their own accounts of the news, quoting Nightingale and Mozilla President Li Gong.

The move is a change of strategic direction for Mozilla -- one among several as the non-profit organization tries new ways to retain its influence in the face of new challenges. Those challenges include the climbing popularity of Google's Chrome browser and Firefox's faint presence in the smartphone and tablet market, where people spend more and more of their computing lives. A decade ago, Mozilla's mission was to break the dominance of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, but now its top priority is to bring openness to what the organization sees as the .

In 2012, Mozilla showed a browser for iOS called Junior, but the effort ultimately didn't bear fruit. In 2013, Mozilla said it wouldn't build Firefox for iOS because of objections to the limits Apple places on third-party browsers.

Mozilla confirmed the work in a brief statement, calling it experimental but declining to reveal further details.

"We are in the early stages of experimenting with something that allows iOS users to be able to choose a Firefox-like experience," Mozilla said. "We work in the open at Mozilla and are just starting to experiment, so we'll update you when we have more to share."

Diminishing share of usage

A better presence on smartphones and tablets is crucial for Mozilla's effort to remain relevant in today's computing world.

Firefox remains a significant force on the Web and in charting standards that make the Web a more viable competitor to iOS, Android, Windows and OS X. But its share of usage is slipping. As a share of desktop and mobile browsing, Firefox has slipped to 11.6 percent of usage, according to figures from analytics firm StatCounter. On tablets and smartphones, its share of usage was just 0.5 percent in November.

For Firefox, Google no longer is the global default search engine.
For Firefox, Google no longer is the global default search engine. Mozilla

Mozilla has branched out to mobile with a version of Firefox for Google's Android OS and with its own Firefox OS in lower-end smartphones, but Firefox for iOS is different. That's because Apple doesn't permit others' browser engines on its mobile OS. Instead, third-party browsers, such as Google' Chrome and Opera's Coast, must use an Apple-supplied engine.

For Mozilla, that's been a big sticking point, because it undercuts the organization's mission to use Firefox to encourage the use of open Web technologies instead of technologies locked to one company's computing platform.

For example, Apple's browser engines don't support the WebRTC technology for real-time communications on the Web. WebRTC is core to Firefox's Hello service for online chat, which competes directly with Apple's FaceTime.

Apple's boost to others' browsers

With iOS 8, though, Apple has improved conditions for third-party browser makers. The browser engine it supplies for the purpose now is significantly faster at running Web-based JavaScript programs, meaning that third-party browsers on iOS can better match Safari's own performance.

The move was made in response to requests from programmers writing iOS programs, Apple said in June at its developer conference. Releasing a version of Firefox for iOS might not be everything Mozilla could want, but it might give the organization more influence with Apple than it has on the iOS sidelines.

There's also room for some customization on top of Apple's browser engine core. Browser makers can customize user interfaces, support new network software like Google's SPDY, set search engine defaults, and synchronize people's browsing history and bookmarks.

Two other big changes are the shift away from Google as Firefox's global default service for fulfilling searches through the browser -- Mozilla has just begun switching to Yahoo as the default in the US -- and the presentation of advertisements on Firefox's new-tab page. One early ad Mozilla showed was for "Citizenfour," a documentary film about former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked information about intelligence services' online surveillance activities.

Update, 7:46 a.m. PT: Adds comment from Mozilla.