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Nokia cash boosts Mozilla

IE "killer" comes back from the dead as browser battleground shifts from PCs to devices.

Nokia has funded a cell phone browser project at the Mozilla Foundation, breathing new life into the open-source effort once written off as Microsoft roadkill.

Sources familiar with the deal this week confirmed that Nokia paid Mozilla to produce a cell phone browser based on the foundation's open-source code base. The resulting project, called "Minimo," has produced a workable prototype, or "pre-alpha milestone."

Mozilla and Nokia declined to comment specifically on the funding agreement, but a Nokia representative described the company as an "active player in the open-source community."


What's new:
Nokia has funded a cell phone browser based on Mozilla's open-source code base, helping spur a general renaissance for the foundation's effort.

Bottom line:
As Mozilla's Firefox starts to generate buzz and an enthusiastic following, the browser battleground is shifting from PCs to mobile devices.

For more info:
More stories on this topic

"We have an active dialogue with a variety of players, including Mozilla and Linux," Nokia spokeswoman Laurie Armstrong said. "It would be natural for us to consider a variety of options in the browser area for suitability for handhelds. Involvement with Mozilla would be a natural step for us."

Nokia's interest and cash are helping spur a general renaissance for the Mozilla effort. After six-and-a-half years, three corporate mergers, numerous layoffs and widespread complaints about the quality and size of its software, the foundation is starting to generate buzz and an enthusiastic following for its Firefox browser.

Even though Mozilla browsers make up only a small fraction of the market, Firefox has earned rave reviews on Web logs, in newsgroups, in the computer press, and even scored a pair of prizes--all before reaching its 1.0 release.

The latest update, posted this week, is version 0.9. Version 1.0, once expected to arrive by next month, is now slated for late summer or early fall.

The Nokia funding comes to light 11 months after Time Warner subsidiary America Online spun off the troubled open-source development project as a nonprofit with $2 million in seed money. Lotus founder Mitch Kapor pitched in an additional $300,000.

Sources described the Nokia deal, inked last year, as a potential model for Mozilla's financial self-sufficiency. The group hopes to land more development grants to meet the needs of particular clients and at the same time make the resulting code freely available to all-comers. The foundation also plans to announce the corporate members of a technical advisory board in coming weeks.

Nokia's interest in Mozilla could help the group extend its technology to cell phones, a segment of the browser market that is only just beginning to register with consumers in the United States. Wireless carriers are moving ahead with plans to build high-speed "3G" networks that will give consumers speedier Internet access from cell phones. That, in turn, is creating demand for software that can easily modify Web pages designed for big displays to render well on small screens.

Although Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) is used by about nine in 10 people who access the Web over a PC, no one player yet dominates the browser market when it comes to cell phones and other devices such as set-top boxes. In addition to Opera Software and Microsoft's Pocket IE, competitors include Access, InterNiche Technologies, Fusion, NexGen Software, NetClue, Openwave Systems and QNX.

The prize could be huge. Global cell phone shipments hit about 500 million in 2003, dwarfing PC sales, which topped out at 155 million, according to research firm IDC.

Originally launched in 1998 as a way for Netscape to head off competition from Microsoft's free IE browser, Mozilla.org pioneered the concept of a corporate-driven open-source development project, in contrast to the grass-roots efforts that developed the Apache Web server software and the Linux operating system.

Mozilla toiled for a nail-biting 32 months before Netscape--then owned by AOL--produced a browser based on its work. That initial release met with scathing reviews. Subsequent Mozilla-based releases over the years improved in quality but ballooned in size, prompting Apple Computer to pass over Mozilla last year in favor of the KHTML open-source project when the Macintosh gained its Safari browser.

In response to complaints about code bloat, the proliferation of underlying code in an application, Mozilla launched the effort to produce a slimmed-down, standalone browser. After a contentious naming dispute, that project became Firefox.

Meanwhile, AOL finally ceded defeat in the browser war it had acquired with Netscape, settling its antitrust dispute with Microsoft. It agreed to use IE with its online service (though it continues to release Mozilla-based Netscape browser updates) and to spin off Mozilla as a nonprofit organization.

Mozilla's focus on weight loss corresponds both with present-day market imperatives and the founding goals of Mozilla.org.

Back in 1998, Netscape engineers who spearheaded the project envisioned a browser that could be split easily into components so that developers could pick and choose the parts they needed. Years later, Netscape's corporate parent revived that vision, saying Mozilla 1.0 would serve the browsing needs of its "AOL Everywhere" strategy to put AOL Internet access on various devices and not just the computer desktop.

Fit to shrink
With the Nokia-funded Minimo project, Mozilla appears to have finally succeeded in shedding the pounds and making itself attractive to corporate suitors.

The full Mozilla suite, with a mail client, Internet Relay Chat, and an HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) editor, weighs in at 8.9 megabytes. But at 4.7MB, the standalone Firefox 0.9 for Windows is about half that size, and significantly smaller than the 6.2MB Firefox 0.8.

Minimo is getting small enough to give other cell phone browsers a run for their money, according to Mozilla.

"We are getting to fairly close numbers when people start to look at Minimo on the devices," said Chris Hofmann, Mozilla's director of engineering. "We do look fairly competitive."

Nokia, headquartered in Espoo, Finland, has long shipped cell phones with technology by Oslo, Norway-based browser maker Opera, and has a browser of its own. The fate of Opera browsers in Nokia cell phones could be in doubt, however, as Minimo prepares a free alternative.

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Opera--which was chagrined when Apple passed it over--expressed admiration for its open-source competitor, while questioning its ability to shrink its product down to competitive sizes.

"I have a great deal of respect for the Mozilla people, but whether they can get their browser small enough to compete with Opera is a different question," said Hakon Lie, the chief technology officer at Opera. "They can take away parts, but can they do enough of it to go to the very small devices?"

One feature new to Firefox 0.9 is "one-click migration," which lets people transfer their bookmarks, cookies and passwords from other browsers, including IE, Opera and other Mozilla-based browsers. Another feature alerts people when updates to the software are available.

A third helps consumers manage the nearly 200 third-party add-ons written for Firefox. The update also fixes bugs and improves performance, according to Mozilla.

Mozilla, based in Mountain View, Calif., on Wednesday released version 0.7 of its Thunderbird e-mail application, version 0.3 of its Nvu HTML editor, and a 200-page Mozilla user's manual, available on CD from the Mozilla store. A full update of the Mozilla suite, to version 1.7, is also due this week. Netscape will release a version 7.2 browser based on Mozilla 1.7.