Firefox on Your Cell Phone

With the iPhone, Apple showed how to surf the Web on the small screen. Now, it seems, a modern version of the browser wars of the 1990s could be shaping up, with the battleground being the mobile phone. And there's a new list of contenders: Safari on the iPhone, Internet Explorer Mobile for Windows Mobile, RIM's BlackBerry Web browser, and a version of Chrome for Google's Android phones. Within the next few months, there will be a new entry: a scaled-down, sped-up version of Firefox, called Fennec.

Last week, Mozilla, the nonprofit organization behind Firefox, released an "alpha" version of Fennec, just as the desktop version of its browser reached 20 percent of the market for the first time. This early release lets programmers play with the interface, catch bugs, and write add-on features, says Jay Sullivan, vice president of mobile at Mozilla. Fennec (named for a type of small fox) is hardly consumer ready: it currently operates only on the somewhat bulky Nokia N810 Internet tablet, and there are plenty of bugs and interface challenges to iron out, says Sullivan. But by the first part of 2009, Fennec could be ready to run on consumer phones.

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So far, says Sullivan, the feedback from the developers toying with Fennec has been positive. Early tests of the browser show its JavaScript performance, a measure of speed, will be competitive with the Android and mobile Safari JavaScript performance, Sullivan says.

But Mozilla still faces the challenge of distributing Fennec. Apple, Microsoft, and Google all have direct channels for distribution--operating systems for Internet-enabled phones. But Mozilla's path will require securing deals with other manufacturers and operating-system makers to ensure compatibility. While it's easy to upload software on a desktop computer, handset makers and cellular providers tightly control the software that can run on their handsets. For instance, Apple has kept other third-party Web browsers off the iPhone App Store.

Despite these challenges, Sullivan hopes that the novel look and feel of Fennec will boost its popularity. In conjunction with user-interface designers at Mozilla Labs, the Fennec team built a mobile browser so that its controls can be easily accessed but disappear when users don't need them. One of the main goals, Sullivan says, was to "give over the entire screen of the device to the Web content, removing all user-interface controls entirely." Using a touch-screen interface, a user drags her finger to the right to reveal open tabs, and to the left to reveal controls such as the back button and the address bar.

In addition, Mozilla designers have incorporated what they call the Awesome Bar--the smart address bar from the desktop version of Firefox that guesses which page a user wants when she types a letter or two, based on her bookmarks and browsing history. This feature has enhanced Fennec, says Sullivan, because typing on the browser is especially awkward. So Fennec's Awesome Bar also infers when a person is typing keywords for a Web search.

Moreover, Fennec will be able to work with a Firefox research project called Weave that allows a person to remotely access his desktop Web-browsing history, bookmarks, and other preferences. "One of my goals with Fennec is to leverage the number of Firefox users we have on the desktop," Sullivan says.

Future versions of the phone might even include a haptic interface, Sullivan says, meaning that the phone would vibrate, for example, when a user touches a button on its screen. "In the future, I think there's some stuff there to make interactions feel more natural," he adds, "to provide a sense of confirmation when you've clicked a button or when you're doing a drag-and-drop function." Voice control might be further off into the future, however. "I don't know if the technology is quite there yet," Sullivan says. "And we also need to be sensitive to licensing issues, as the most popular speech engines aren't necessarily royalty-free."

"I think Fennec has a good chance," says Jeffrey Hammond, mobile analyst at Forrester Research. "The first question you have to ask is what platforms we expect to see in the mobile space, and from a smart-phone perspective, I think it's a reasonable assumption that RIM, Windows Mobile, Symbian, iPhone OS, and Android all have a lot of momentum right now." However, Hammond suspects that Fennec could find a footing on the Symbian operating system, which powers Nokia devices.

Mozilla's Sullivan says that Fennec can't run on Android right now because the Android Marketplace, where phone software can be downloaded, only accepts programs written in Java. If Android were supportive of applications that could run directly on the operating system without needing to be written in Java, Sullivan says, "then it's interesting for us. We'll have to see which direction Google goes with that."

Hammond also believes that Fennec's performance could make it attractive for makers of mobile operating systems. The browser's combination of speed and small size could be crucial to its success, he says. "Speed is one reason why we've seen Firefox gain share in the enterprise, versus Internet Explorer," Hammond says. Because of that, he adds, "I think Fennec has a good chance of gaining share."

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