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Firefox Mobile gets started on Android

We take you on a hands-on tour of Fennec for Android pre-alpha, a very early stage look at Android's Firefox browser-to-be.

Fennec (Firefox Mobile) on Android
Mozilla's first stab at Firefox for Android is rough and unstable, but it's a start.

Android users who relish being on the cutting bleeding edge of mobile software are going to love getting their peepers and fingers on Mozilla's latest foray into Firefox for mobile phones.

Late Tuesday, the open-source browsermaker released a prealpha version of Firefox for Android. If beta builds are for testing and feedback with minimal instability for the tester in question, alphas are far less stable elements, and prealphas--well, you get the picture. You should only consider downloading it if you have a high tolerance for crashes and forcing reboots on your Android smartphone--like us! 

Mozilla issues a heap of caveats and considerations to go along with the warning. It has only tested Firefox prealpha for Android on the Motorola Droid and Nexus One, which we just happen to have lying around.  The prealpha won't work on any Android device running an operating system version below 2.0 and it "likely" requires your phone to be OpenGL ES 2.0-capable, according to Mozilla in a blog article.

You must also install it to the phone memory and not to the SD card. The early build of the browser eats memory, may not adequately render large pages, you won't be able to open links from other apps, and there are various other installation punches that you should roll with when previewing the browser.

Hands on Fennec for Android

Sure enough, we ran into problems right away with a black screen of death Mozilla warned about on its blog. We had to force stop Fennec--the development name for Firefox on mobile phone--and reboot the phone before we could play around with the browser.

When we did, we saw that Fennec on Android looks roughly like the first finished version of Firefox mobile for the Maemo platform, including tabbed browsing and the metaphor of swiping left and right on the touch screen to get to the gutters where the settings menu, bookmarks, navigation arrows, bookmarks, and browser tabs live. There are some subtle design differences in Android versus the Nokia Internet devices, mostly in terms of button placement.

Although bright green around the gills, Fennec for Android prealpha already supports Mozilla Weave, the extension that lets you access tabs from Firefox on the desktop as well as the tabs you have open on the mobile browser.

Mozilla includes other extras with the browser, such as being able to set your start page. As with Firefox Mobile for the Nokia Internet devices of its debut, the browser comes with a few plug-ins preinstalled, so you can search Google, Amazon, Twitter, and Wikipedia from the get-go.

We were able to get the experimental version of Weave Sync that's compatible with Fennec for Android prealpha (1.3b2 to be exact) to work; however, its installation process could have been--and we're sure will one day will be--smoother. Still, we were able to access open browser tabs from the desktop once we synced.

Even taking our test experience with a grain of salt--we'll forgive the sluggishness in light of the browser's early development--we did notice page rendering pitfalls, the keyboard popping up when we wished it hadn't, and the critical lack of multitouch support like pinch-to-zoom. Fennec supports only one zoom level when you double-tap the screen. This version of Fennec also doesn't respond to the Nexus One's hardware back button, which means you get to make more trips to the navigation sidebar to navigate.

There's a certain bravery that goes along with making software available to testers at such an inchoate stage, and it's one that's a central tenet in the open-source philosophy of the active feedback loop. Although there are holes aplenty that the team is aware of, we still had a blast seeing the app up and running on an Android phone.

If any of you hardcore Android testers out there try it out, let us know in the comments how you think it's progressing. You can also check out the above video of Firefox for Maemo 1.0 to see where Fennec for Android is headed.