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Mozilla aims Firefox at mobile devices

The company behind Firefox will pour more resources into adapting the open-source Web browser for mobile devices, hiring new staff and elevating the internal status of the project.

Another star is coming into alignment in the mobile Linux galaxy: Firefox.

Mozilla has set up a group to develop the Firefox Web browser for mobile devices, hiring new staff and elevating the priority of the work to the same level as desktop computers. Mike Schroepfer, Mozilla's vice president of engineering, announced the mobile Firefox move on his blog Tuesday evening.

"We are serious about bringing the Firefox experience and technology to mobile devices," he said. "Bringing Firefox add-ons, the Mozilla platform, open source, and a large and passionate community to the closed and fragmented mobile platform will do the world some serious good."

Schroepfer announced two new hires. One is Christian Sejersen, who recently led browsers at mobile browser developer Openwave, will be in charge of the mobile Firefox work and will set up a research-and-development center in Copenhagen, Denmark. In addition, Brad Lassey joined Mozilla from France Telecom's research-and-development group.

Mobile devices have become a "tier one platform set for Mozilla," he added. "This means we will make core platform decisions with mobile devices as first-class citizens."

Don't expect instant results, though. Mobile Firefox won't arrive until "later...certainly not before 2008." It will employ technology that will ship after Firefox 3, he added. That version isn't even in beta testing yet.

The work dovetails neatly with several other projects for open-source mobile devices. Canonical is working on a version of Ubuntu Linux for mobile devices, Intel trying to improve Linux for x86 chip-based mobile devices and includes Canonical as a partner in the effort, Nokia runs a project called Maemo for its Linux-based Internet tablets, and Google apparently has its own mobile Linux work under way.

While these efforts are marching in the same direction, if not necessarily in lockstep, it should be noted that mobile Linux efforts have been under way for years with little major success. One thing that's different this time is that Intel is working to bring the power of a fairly modern PC to small devices, potentially making software development easier.

Apple's iPhone has put an emphasis on full-fledged browsers on mobile devices instead of the limited-function ones that so far prevail in the market. "The user demand for a full browsing experience on mobile devices is clear. If you weren't sure about this before, you should be after the launch of the iPhone," Schroepfer said.

Apple's products use its own browser, Safari, but another option is Opera, which has had a long-standing mobile browsing effort, with products including Opera Mini and Opera Mobile.

But full browsers present hardware challenges for tiny devices. "Getting a no-compromise Web experience on devices requires significant memory (at least 64MB) as well as significant CPU horsepower," Schroepfer said.

The mobile Firefox project will replace another Mozilla effort, called Minimo, Schroepfer said. "While we don't currently plan to develop that project further, it has already provided us with valuable information about how Gecko (Firefox's page rendering engine) operates in mobile environments, has helped us reduce footprint, and has given us a platform for initial experimentation in user experience," Schroepfer said.