Mozilla abandons work on Firefox for Windows Mobile

Microsoft's chokehold on Windows Mobile 7 has its first casulty: Firefox.

Mozilla announced on Monday that it is abandoning development of a Windows Mobile browser. Mozilla blames Microsoft, saying that because Redmond is closing off development of native Windows 7 applications, and clearly banking on Windows Mobile 7 over 6.5, there's no point in continuing its years-long development of a Firefox browser for 6.5. This according to a blog post by Mozilla's Mobile Team Technical Lead, Stuart Parmenter.

Parmenter says that Mozilla had invested a lot of effort in building a browser for 6.5, and hopes that Microsoft will eventually release a development kit for native Windows 7 apps so it can put that work to use. But until then, it is concentrating on Android and Maemo.

Bloggers and journalists across the Web have a lot to say on the matter. Lawrence Latif of the Inquirer writes that Firefox is really only the first casualty. Microsoft's decision will ultimately cause many more developers to shun Windows Mobile 7 altogether:

"Microsoft took a clean slate approach to the operating system that resulted in thousands of pre-existing applications becoming incompatible. To hinder matters further, its development policies aren't all that conducive for would-be developers. ... For Microsoft, limiting the availability of other browsers on one of its operating systems is par for the course but the lack of native development kit is sure to hurt other developers and ultimately, Microsoft itself."

Ina Fried of CNet remarks that Microsoft hasn't exactly been consistent in its native code rules. Not surprisingly, it has given itself the advantage:

"Microsoft has thus far said that applications for the [Windows Mobile 7] operating system have to be written in either Silverlight or XNA, rather than in native code. There are a few possible exceptions to this rule. Microsoft is using native code in some of its own programs and has also said that phone makers and carriers may be able to do some native code that ships with the device ... Microsoft may also find a way to let Adobe do Flash for Windows Phone Series 7."

Scott Bicheno of the notes with interest that the news comes the same week that Opera has applied to Apple for approval of its mobile browser for the iPhone. If Apple approves Opera, this could indicate a more open mind on Apple's part in approving iPhone apps while Microsoft is getting more closed.

We'll see if Apple bites on that one. Opera, of course, couldn't hope to get the same kind of approval to launch a native Opera browser for Windows 7. Opera's complaint to the European Commission that Internet Explorer was an unfair monopoly on the desktop is what caused Microsoft another round of headaches with the EC, ultimately resulting in the browser ballet for Windows in Europe. But, I digress ...

Bicheno seems to defend Microsoft's decision to limit native development. He writes:

"Sick of constantly being at a disadvantage by the need to accommodate every piece of hardware and software in the world, Microsoft has introduced tight parameters for any handset that hopes to use its Windows Phone 7 OS. This includes closing-off the development of native applications, according to Mozilla mobile team technical lead Stuart Parmenter."

But Caroline Gabriel of Rethink Wireless says that Mozilla's announcement is tilting at windmills. Without being aligned with a particular operating system, and having less history with the mobile market than Opera, Mozilla is in a sorry spot to capture a piece of the growing mobile market. She writes:

"Until recently users got the browser they were given by their carrier or handset maker; then there was the dream of a full choice of fully fledged browsers on every smartphone; now the situation is similar to that in the PC world. Most people stick with the default browser on their phone, which in midrange handsets is increasingly likely to be Opera Mini because of its efficiency, while on smartphones it is likely to come from the firm controlling the operating system (Apple, Google, Nokia and so on). That makes it tough for the non-aligned browsers, notably the new Mozilla Mobile."

If Microsoft became so hopelessly behind in smartphone market because it was aiming at backward compatibility for its tens of thousands of Windows Mobile apps, than starting fresh might not be a bad idea. I don't think it was the backward compatibility that made Windows Mobile a mediocre experience. The browser rendering engine was (and at least until Windows Mobile 7 arrives, still is) awful.

Couple that with imaginative new interfaces being brought to market by Apple and you have a situation where Microsoft needs to bring its A-game to grab a piece of the smartphone pie.

Mozilla has always instituted a lot of great ideas with Firefox. While not surprising, it is a shame that these two teams can't work together.

Posted by Julie Bort. Follow Julie Bort on Twitter

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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