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Mozilla moves ahead with mobile Firefox

The Fennec-developed handset version of Firefox will be open to add-ons, unlike existing mobile browsers, Mozilla's Jay Sullivan tells ZDNet UK
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Mozilla has been working for years on creating a handset version of its successful Firefox desktop browser. In April last year, however, it said it was making a fresh effort at moving Firefox onto phones and other handheld devices, naming the project 'Fennec'.

The results of that work have been made available as an alpha release for Nokia's N800-series of tablets with Maemo mobile Linux. The upcoming browser, however, will also be aimed at other platforms.

ZDNet UK caught up with Mozilla's head of mobile business, Jay Sullivan, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to discuss the progress and trajectory of the Firefox web browser for handset.

Q: Where is Mozilla with its mobile browser so far?
A: We have had two alpha releases on Nokia's Maemo tablets and will have a beta on that soon. We put out a first milestone last week — it's the first time we've got all the code together in one place. We also kicked off a [Symbian] Series 60 port two months ago, and hopefully that will be in beta by the end of the year.

What precisely is the browser's name? Is it Fennec or Firefox Mobile?
Fennec is the project code name. The end-user product name will be Firefox, not Firefox Mobile. The goal is to bring a full web experience to the handset. Anything that implies 'trimmed down' is to be avoided.

Surely the mobile version of Firefox will have to be trimmed down from the desktop version, though?
If you look at the main pillars of what Firefox is about, there are certain key attributes. There are things like the 'awesome bar' [the URL bar that also acts as a search bar]. We will also be the first mobile browser that supports add-ons — add-ons will be a huge part of the experience, and of course security too.

Another pillar will be support for web developers. People want to use HTML, Javascript and CSS, but they will also be able to access the camera, accelerometer, location and so on.

It sounds like it will end up as more than a browser.
If people want a nice simple browser then that's fine, but they can also get add-ons.

Are you working with the Symbian and Windows Mobile teams in terms of porting Firefox to those platforms?
We have talked a lot with Symbian, and are helping them think about open source. With Windows Mobile, you're not going to get a lot of help from the vendor in question. We have many [code] contributors from within Nokia.

Look at ARM providing intellectual property, up to Texas Instruments making chipsets — there are a lot of partnerships in mobile and we encourage them to get involved. Nokia and ARM employees checking the code helps improve Fennec.

How about Opera? Their mobile browser is a serious competitor, and they address various segments from low-to-mid-range phones — or 'featurephones' — to smartphones. How will mobile Firefox compare?
We're relatively high-end — we don't have a 'mini' type of product. Today's featurephones aren't a great fit for us, but today's smartphones are tomorrow's featurephones.

We'll be successful at the grassroots social interaction that gets people to download [the mobile version of Firefox]. As with the desktop version, we use community evangelism instead of advertising. Localisation is another factor — people are volunteering all over the world to localise it.

Which mobile platforms will you target?
Windows Mobile, Maemo, Symbian and LiMo. The iPhone forbids it. The BlackBerry platform is basically a Java environment that they expose to application developers, and we're not written in Java, so that's tricky. The same is true for Android, so you won't see our mobile browser on Android for the moment.

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