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First Mobile Firefox enters home stretch

Mozilla plans to release the first release candidate of Firefox for mobile phones next week. Coming next year: multitouch, Windows Mobile support, and more.

Mozilla is wrapping up work on its first version of Firefox for mobile phones, an important step in bringing the second most popular PC browser to an area where a rival project holds more influence.

"Our goal is to have a release candidate next week," said Jay Sullivan, Mozilla's vice president of mobile. "If things go smoothly, we'll have a (final) version out in the next few weeks," with the debut planned for this year, he added.

Mozilla has been a leader in advancing the Web state of the art. But when it comes to the mobile phones, where the power of a new generation of hardware has transformed browsers from primitive afterthoughts to useful tools, Firefox has been missing in action.

Instead, an open-source project called WebKit powers the browser on the higher-end mobile phones du jour--Apple's iPhone, the Palm Pre, and Motorola's Droid and other models running Google's Android operating system, with BlackBerry headed that direction, too.

In contrast, the first mobile Firefox version will run on Nokia's powerful but relatively obscure new N900, a $569 hybrid computer and mobile phone that uses Nokia's Linux-based Maemo operating system. A Windows Mobile version of Firefox is set to arrive next year, and Mozilla has begun working on an Android version now that Google released a native developer kit.

Firefox has one big thing going for it, though: it's a close relative of the PC-based browser that today is used by about a quarter of people on the Web.

The link extends beyond brand familiarity. For one thing, mobile Firefox is based on the same code as the present Firefox 3.6--also a beta version due to finished by the end of 2009. For another, through a Mozilla service and browser plug-in called Weave, mobile Firefox synchronizes bookmarks, passwords, and even open tabs with the desktop version of the browser.

In addition, Firefox for the N900 can run many Firefox extensions--AdBlock Plus among the 30 or so now available. Sullivan recommends updating their interfaces for the small devices, though.

Nokia partnership
Mozilla has been working closely with Nokia to develop Firefox on its N900 handset. It already ships with a lighter-weight browser that uses the same Gecko code base as Firefox, but the full Firefox mobile version--a project code-named Fennec--is more powerful.

"You want to put the desktop experience into a pocket-sized device," said Ari Jaaksi, vice president of Maemo devices. "What do people use on the desktop? Firefox."

However, Firefox won't ship with the device, at least initially. The company is open to the idea of including it in the next version of the operating system, due in the second half of 2010, Jaaksi said. Mozilla, meanwhile, is comfortable with the idea of people having to actively download the browser, the most common way Firefox has been distributed on PCs.

The N900 is available as an unlocked device through various retail channels, but Nokia doesn't yet have any partnerships in the United States with wireless service carriers who might help bring the N900 to a broader market. It's a relatively powerful device with a 600MHz processor and 3D graphics hardware--enough oomph to run Adobe Flash on Web pages today. Its price may seem high, but bear in mind that unlocked devices don't get a subsidy by carriers that expect to see their up-front payment returned over months of subscription payments.

Nokia's N900 will be the first device that runs the mobile version of Firefox.
Nokia's N900 will be the first device that runs the mobile version of Firefox. Nokia

So does Firefox require this level or horsepower?

"We need pretty high-end stuff to make the Web great," Sullivan said, but not so high-end that the N900 is the only handset to fit the bill. "Everything now on the mid- to high-end is fine."

WebKit has intercepted the newer generation of smartphones. Through the wonders of Moore's Law, new devices get steadily more processing power and memory. So aiming for today's top-end phones can mean software will work on tomorrow's mainstream models.

The N900 is at the top end of the range, but Firefox runs elsewhere, too. The Windows Mobile version of Fennec is in alpha testing now, lagging the Maemo version by about three or four months, Sullivan said. Mozilla plans to release it in final form in the first half of 2010, he said.

Firefox: like an operating system?
Mozilla has a lot of plans for mobile Firefox that, to some extent, put it in opposition with Nokia. The N900 is aimed in part at programmers who want to low-level control over a device through its Linux operating system. But Firefox--like Google's Chrome--is assuming the role of a general-purpose foundation for running programs.

"We're almost an operating system," Sullivan said.

Several features support the direction. Built into Firefox now is geolocation, which lets a Web application tap into the phone's services to figure out where a user is and, for example, show a map of the nearest pizza shops. Also included is support for orientation detection, important for games, and offline data storage, important for a variety of programming needs.

There's more on the way in 2010, Sullivan said:

• Support for multitouch displays for a more sophisticated user interface.

• Support for haptic feedback, such as the phone vibrating when a virtual keyboard key is tapped.

• The ability to control a camera.

• Support for Electrolysis, Mozilla's project to split tasks such as the user interface, tabs, and plug-ins into separate processes. That improves stability and performance, he said.

• Support for JetPack, Mozilla's next-generation extensions system.

S• Integration of the Weave synchronization software so it's no longer a plug-in.

• Support for WebGL, an interface to provide browsers with accelerated 3D graphics.

• Faster execution of JavaScript programs that are common and increasingly powerful on the Web.

Applications that run natively on a device--whether directly on the hardware as in the case of the iPhone or on the Java-derived layer called Dalvik on Android--are an important area of mobile development today. But the Palm Pre uses a browser-based application design.

"It's the right model. It's not there yet," Sullivan said of Web-based programs. Today programmers must create separate versions of applications for BlackBerry, Nokia's Symbian, Android, the iPhone, and other mobile phones.

But that profusion will be replaced by the universality of the Web, he predicted.

"In three years," Sullivan said, "80 percent of those applications are going to be Web-based."