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Firefox mobile, Opera Mini and the next-gen mobile browsers: what you need to know

Firefox mobile is due for release any day soon, but why is its release such a big deal? What's going to happen to mobile browsers next year? Any why doesn't flash work on the iPhone already? Answers to these questions and more lie here

The bad old days of crap WAP browsers are thankfully long gone. Mozilla is about to release a version of its Firefox browser for the Nokia N900, Opera says it has more than 41.7 million users of its Opera Mini browser around the world, and whizzy WebKit-based browsers are the order of the day for handset makers. In 2010, things are only going to get better. Here’s how.

Mobile web? It’s not as good as a compu...

Let me stop you there. Mobile browsers have come on apace in the last couple of years, fuelled by the iPhone and the mushrooming numbers of handsets with decent-sized touchscreens. Surfing on the iPhone, Palm Pre or a recent Android phone such as the HTC Hero is a world away from the clunky browsers of the past -- and mobile web usage has grown exponentially as a result. Analyst IDC reckons there were 450 million mobile internet users this year, and predicts they will top one billion by 2013.

So why all the fuss about Firefox going mobile?

Well, 330 million people are using it on their computers, giving Mozilla’s browser an estimated 25% market share. The existing Windows Mobile version -- Fennec -- was one of the most impressive performers in our recent mobile browser test,but the all-new N900 version showcases new features, including add-ons to customise it, just like the desktop version. The two versions can also synchronise bookmarks, history and passwords.

What’s next though?

The key area for innovation in 2010 is multimedia, and how browsers deal with full-fat web pages offering streaming music, video and animation. Third-party browsers like Skyfire led the way in this area at a time when the ones preloaded on handsets still balked at the sight of Flash elements. That's changing now, though, even if Apple remains seemingly immune to pressure (from Adobe and users alike) to support Flash in iPhone’s Safari browser.

Hang on though, there are apps for that. An advert told me so...

That’s the other big debate around this area in 2010: mobile web versus downloadable apps. The latter reign supreme at the moment when it comes to delivering interactive and multimedia gubbins for mobile phones. There is a shift though: for example, you can play Facebook games in the N900's own browser. Also, some big companies are placing their bets on the mobile web to win out in the longer term, as browsers improve.

Big companies? Like who?

Google for one. Earlier this year, its developer evangelist Vic Gundotra told a conference that the mobile web is on the rise. "What we clearly see happening is a move to incredibly powerful browsers. We believe the web has won and over the next several years, the browser, for economic reasons almost, will become the platform that matters." The company has put its money where Vic’s mouth is by investing in its own mobile web services as much as -- if not more -- than its apps.

But apps are still more powerful, aren't they?

For now. But besides supporting Flash and other streaming techs, the key to the future of mobile browsers will be getting access to native features of phones -- the camera, GPS and local storage, for example (the latter will enable websites to be cached for offline viewing). Meanwhile, technologies like the in-development WebGL standard could even see rich 3D games being played in mobile browsers rather than downloaded in the future.