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Mozilla's mobile Firefox targets summer release

Mozilla's mobile Firefox is being designed to bring the full Web to handhelds

By , Network World
July 09, 2008 01:48 PM ET

Network World - You are one of 8 million users who just downloaded Firefox 3.0. But are you ready for Firefox for mobile?

Later this summer, Mozilla hopes to unveil an alpha release of a mobile version of the popular desktop Web browser. A beta release could be available by year-end. The development project for mobile Firefox, with the code name Fennec (a species of fox), was launched in October 2007. It promises to deliver in open source a full, power-efficient Web-browsing capability for smartphones and other mobile devices. 

Mobile browsing, at least in the United States, was transformed by Apple's iPhone, with its touchscreen user interface and on-board, proprietary Safari browser. Though not the first full mobile browser (Opera Mobile was one forerunner), Safari threw a dramatic light on Web access from handhelds.

"With the iPhone, people have a sense that they can or should be able to browse the full Web," says Jay Sullivan, vice president of mobile for Mozilla. "We're in that camp: We're going for the full Web."

The Safari way

Unlike many other early mobile browsers, Safari can access existing Web sites directly, instead of sites with content stripped down and tailored for the small screens and keyboards of handhelds. It can give full access to some Microsoft SharePoint sites, for example. In addition, Safari's touch interface makes it easier for users to manipulate Web pages.

Mobile Firefox is one of several efforts to bring the full Web to mobile devices, a major step forward from the so-called microbrowsers that for the most part have made surfing the Web on a handheld a cumbersome, frustrating process. Start-up Skyfire Labs  and Bitstream's ThunderHawk are two other efforts, both of which run the browser instance on a server.

Mobile Firefox wants to outstrip Safari in ease of use and performance while opening up the browser so users can extend its features as dramatically and easily as they can today with the desktop product. "It's for Web sites that people [today] are living in and working with," Sullivan says. "People browsing the Web from a mobile device don't expect an 'alternative universe' which lacks features they're used to."

The desktop Firefox

The first step is using the just-released desktop Firefox 3.0. Users will find many of the same features in the mobile browser, notably the new, "awesome bar," which is a vastly smarter URL box that can be used to do keyword searches of your URL history and bookmarks. Firefox 3.0 also includes improved security and uses vastly less memory than Firefox 2.0. The awesome bar will be even more important on the phone, because typing with a phone keypad is so laborious, Sullivan says.

The core of all this innovation is the heart of mobile Firefox. The mobile browser will use the same core HTML Gecko rendering engine that's found in desktop Firefox, with full JavaScript capability and AJAX (a set of tools and features for building interactive Web applications). Gecko is also used in the ThunderHawk mobile browser, and the browser Nokia developed for its Nokia N810 Internet tablet.

The results of the open development process over the past 10 months have been impressive, says Kerry McGuire, director of strategic software alliances for ARM, the British chip maker with U.S. offices in Austin, Texas. ARM licenses its CPU technology to such wireless giants as Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and others for a wide range of mobile devices. A couple of ARM engineers have been actively engaged in the mobile Firefox project, studying the issues of porting it to a range of the company's chip platforms, including several scheduled for release in early 2009.

McGuire says ARM noted two major innovations in the browser. One was quick work in slashing still further the amount of memory needed to run. "That’s a tremendous contribution," she says.

Second was a dramatic improvement in how fast the JavaScript scripting language runs. "JavaScript is quite CPU-intensive," McGuire says. "We've seen a greater than five times performance improvement [in mobile Firefox]. Users will see this mainly in improved responsiveness."

Both changes were accomplished within months of the project's launch last fall, McGuire says. "Watching the code base change so quickly, so positively, that's a 'wow' moment for me," she says.

The all-important user interface

Like Safari, mobile Firefox will be able to work with a touchscreen but also will be available with a non-touch user interface. "We're spending a lot of time and resources on the user experience. This is really key," says Christian Sejersen, Mozilla's director of engineering.

Sejersen identifies several vital elements in optimizing that experience on a mobile device: devote as much of the screen's real estate as possible to the actual browsing experience, eliminating such things as onscreen buttons; make the interface very intuitive, so it's easy for the user to discover and use features; finally, make sure the interface doesn't hinder what you're trying to do.

As an example of his last point, Sejersen says Safari on the iPhone (which he calls a "great mobile browser") displays multiple browser windows as tabs. "If you zoom out to see multiple windows, you see a blank page: to reduce memory usage, it's thrown away," he says. "You [then] have to scroll between them to find which one you want. That takes a lot of time."

By contrast, a prototype of mobile Firefox lets the user drag the open Web page to one side, to reveal the additional pages that are open, a collection of thumbnail images: The user simply taps on the one he wants, and it fills the screen.

A recent "concept video" by Aza Raskin, head of user experience for Mozilla, demonstrated what he carefully calls a "possible direction" for the mobile browser's user interface.

The opening screen shows a big "plus" (+) button on the left, and bookmarks to the right. Click on the + button to open a tab or a new page. Click on a bookmark, and the browser zooms to the page. Scroll the page by dragging and by "flicking."

The standard browser controls, such as back and forward, are located to the left of the Web page you're viewing, as if they were waiting in the wings off-stage. To see them, you gently drag the page to one side, in effect pulling them onto the screen. The URL bar fades into prominence at the same time. This means that until you want a control-button function, the screen is completely filled with just the Web-page content.

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