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New Firefox browser for Android shows boosting privacy boosts speed, too

Dubbed Firefox Preview, the stripped-down Android browser is being piloted now. Apple restrictions keep it off iPhones.

A simplified new Firefox icon

A new and improved Firefox browser is coming to Android phones.

Mozilla

Mozilla has launched a pilot test of its new web browser for Android phones, called Firefox Preview. The new browser is faster and more privacy-focused, and is available now for early adopters to test ahead of a "feature rich, polished version" coming in the fall, the nonprofit organization said.

Firefox Preview is twice as fast as Firefox for Android, has a minimalist design and blocks tracking by default, Mozilla said in a blog post Thursday. It also has a Collections feature to help save, organize and share sites in collections like travel plans and shopping lists.

Mozilla's push for better online privacy has grown louder in recent months, most recently with the change to switch on tracking protection by default in Firefox. But despite years of trying, Mozilla's influence on mobile devices is limited. Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari, the defaults installed on most mobile phones, dominate mobile browsing.

Read more: Is Sony's robot dog Aibo a privacy nightmare?

Why is it so much faster? Because it blocks all computing overhead imposed by tracking technology many advertisers and websites use to follow you around the web for actions like building a profile to target ads.

"Speed improvements are driven in large part by the comprehensive tracking protection that is on by default in Firefox Preview," said Vesta Zare, senior product manager at Firefox Mobile. It's also faster because Mozilla optimized its internal methods for juggling multiple computing tasks and its integration with Android devices.

Mozilla based its measurements on page load times for Microsoft's Bing search engine. That's a pretty good stand-in for a broader list of more than 20 websites Mozilla tests with, but be warned that the speedups will vary from one website to another.

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Mozilla said Thursday that it's been working on a new strategy for Android for several months now, and that Firefox Preview is the result of combining the privacy and security of Mozilla Focus -- a browser designed for quick leave-no-trace glances at websites -- with the amenities of a full mobile browser. 

No tracking, faster web 

Mozilla isn't the only one to discover the performance benefits of tracker blocking. The Brave browser, from the Brave Software founded by former Mozilla Chief Executive Brendan Eich, boasts similar speed boosts from blocking both trackers and ads.

On Wednesday, it announced a new ad-blocking engine that speeds up that element of its browser by a factor of 69. Brave also is working on using machine learning to strip out website ads. Its technology, called AdGraph, is designed to resist advertisers' efforts to sidestep the internet address lists commonly used to spot ads.

Under the covers, Firefox Preview uses Mozilla's GeckoView engine for processing and rendering websites. The hope is to provide a performance boost similar to what Mozilla got with its Quantum-branded Firefox browser for PCs. That could mean compatibility problems for web developers who today are accustomed to only testing with the mobile browsing engines used in Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome, but GeckoView's independence also can improve web standards and keep the web from becoming controlled by those two tech giants.

"Building Firefox for Android on GeckoView also results in greater flexibility in terms of the types of privacy and security features we can offer our mobile users," Mozilla said. "With GeckoView we have the ability to develop faster, more secure and more user friendly browsers."

Apple prohibitions means no Firefox Preview for iPhone

On iPads and iPhones, Apple prohibits the use of any browser engines other than its own WebKit. That means Firefox Preview can't be released for Apple mobile devices.

"Nevertheless, we are doing everything we can to work around these limits to bring the winning features from Preview to Firefox for iOS," Zare said.

firefoxpreview
Mozilla

Early adopters can provide feedback on Firefox Preview via Github or by emailing firefox-preview-feedback@mozilla.com.

If you don't like the Firefox Preview name, good news: it's a placeholder. "Once matured, Firefox Preview will be rebranded with a permanent title," Zare said.

Originally published June 27, 9 a.m. PT.

Update, 10:01 a.m.: Adds details about Firefox Preview performance and competitor Brave.