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Firefox Set to Join Mobile Browser Fray

With billions of mobile devices in use today and only more expected in the near future, software vendors of all stripes are looking to wireless platforms to expand. That's true even for established PC Web browser vendors like Mozilla, which this week announced a new push to bring its popular Firefox offering to the mobile space.

Under its new initiative, Mozilla will aim to turn mobile devices into a first-class platform for its application framework. The goal is to provide wireless users with a full-fledged Firefox experience, including support for browser extensions as well as enabling other developers to build applications on top of it.

"This work is happening in the Mozilla community with the full support of the Mozilla Foundation/Corporation," Mike Schroepfer, Mozilla's vice president of engineering, said in an e-mail interview with InternetNews.com.

To support the effort, Mozilla is setting up a research and development center in Copenhagen, Denmark, which will be led by recent hire Christian Sejersen. Sejersen joined Mozilla after having overseen browsers at mobile technology vendor Openwave, which already has a long history in the wireless Web browser space.

Mozilla is no stranger to mobile itself, although it's done relatively little in that arena compared to its work in the traditional PC environment. A Mozilla-based browser already runs on the Nokia N800, and Mozilla maintains a second, somewhat limited mobile browser project called Minimo. That project will be sidelined in favor of this week's larger effort, the group said.

"Minimo was based on an older version of Firefox and only supported Windows mobile devices," Schroepfer said. "By using the latest version of Firefox, we can dramatically improve performance, reduce memory requirements, and support a larger number of devices."

The actual devices that the new mobile Mozilla effort will support, however, are not yet known. Schroepfer told InternetNews.com that Linux mobile devices definitely will be among those supported, but said the full list of supported devices has yet to be finalized.

Mozilla also has yet to determine its projected launch date for the Mobile Firefox release, although it said the browser is unlikely to emerge before 2008.

Schroepfer said the timing of this week's Mobile Mozilla announcement was unrelated to persistent rumors about Google's "gPhone" effort -- which will likely need a browser.

"The time was right for Mozilla to announce our foray into mobile," he said.

In addition to competition from established vendors like Openwave, Mozilla's renewed focus on mobile also will be watched closely by its browser rival Opera -- which also has a very active mobile browser effort.

An Opera spokesperson put the coming rivalry in a positive light, however.

"Though Mozilla is late to the mobile space, their new focus shows how important it is to bring the Web to people using mobile phones, game consoles and TVs," company spokesperson Thomas Ford told InternetNews.com.

Ford added that any vendor entering the mobile browsing market will have to address a unique set of challenges, including screen resolution, device capability, operator and OEM requirements. How Mozilla Corporation addresses and balances those challenges will be critical to their success, he added.

Of course, Ford also said Mozilla will be facing tough competition since his company's Opera Mini browser remains a dominant force in the industry.

"We have more than 22 million cumulative users of Opera Mini, viewing more than one billion pages per month," Ford said. "Our Opera Mobile and embedded products are used on more than 100 million devices worldwide ... More competition keeps us sharp, and we're excited about the months ahead."