Mozilla unleashes beta version of Fennec, the mobile Firefox

[this post contains some information from our online news story on this subject]

Mozilla this week unveiled the beta version of its mobile Firefox Web browser, codenamed Fennec.

Right now you can only get it on one mobile device, the touch-screen Nokia N810 internet tablet running the open source Maemo operating system. There are versions available to run Windows, Mac, and Linux desktops, to let users and developers work with browser and start writing and testing plugins.

Besides the new JavaScript compiler, the Fennec beta version also introduces:

  • Faster application start-up time
  • Faster panning and zooming
  • Improved bookmark managing, and addition of bookmark folders
  • Plug-in support

You can see a fingerwalk-through the Firefox for Mobile (its formal name) Beta 1 user interface in this Mozilla video:

Fennec Beta 1 walkthrough from Madhava Enros on Vimeo.

Mozilla has been challenging Microsoft for the desktop browser space, in part by putting a strong focus on 1) carefully designed UI and 2) performance improvements from top to bottom in the browser code. The mobile browser is imposing new restrictions, and thus new innovations in both areas, and not just for Mozilla, but for a whole bunch of vendors scrambling to offer a superior browsing experience as use of the mobile Web climbs.

One key new element in Fennec 1.0 Beta 1 is the addition of the same Javascript compiler introduced for the desktop browser last August, TraceMonkey. Essentially, TraceMonkey uses a technique to streamline the compilation process, and that leads, Mozilla says, to a "massive speed increase both in the browser chrome [the the graphical control elements such as the window frames, menus, toolbars and scroll bars in the browser’s border] and Web‐page content."

The beta release notes are available online.

Mozilla released the Fennec alpha version for the Nokia tablet last October. In February, it released a Windows Mobile preview (or "pre-alpha") version that almost immediately ran into major problems, apparently due to the way Windows handles memory allocation.

The gains from TraceMonkey (which is also part of the current beta for the next desktop Firefox) are so great that Mozilla developers have suggested that JavaScript on mobile devices will be able to compete with native code, and even eliminate proprietary plug-ins, such as Adobe Flash, that are needed today to handle highly interactive Web-based graphics content.

The performance improvements are not limited to Maemo devices. Nearly all of the improvements for Fennec on Maemo are directly applicable to Fennec on Windows Mobile, according to Mozilla developer Mark Finkle, writing in his blog.

Performance has also been boosted with an improved rendering engine, resulting in faster pageload times and panning, and with changes to the way Fennec handles bookmarks.

The latter is especially intriguing. During the initial startup of the browser, the Places system (bookmarks and browsing history) is initialized, and then Fennec loads the bookmark list. The Mozilla programmers found there’s actually an intermediate initialization step. And that the bookmark list loading time is further slowed by accessing, for each bookmark, the bookmark system for information that’s used to display the final list.

"In a simple test using just 10 bookmarks, it can take almost 3 seconds to load the list," Finkle wrote, "Luckily, we were able to avoid some of the calls to the bookmark system and have improved load time by almost 40%."

One area still being worked on is the overhead demanded by XPConnect, which is the bridge between JavaScript and C++ code. For mobile devices, this overhead is "non-trivial," Finkle writes. Mozilla is reducing the number of XPConnect calls, and exploring the use of code, called "quickstubs" that "short circuits the XPConnect bridge, making the call faster," according to Finkle.

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