Mozilla Aims Again at Mobile Browsing

Mozilla, well known as the open source group behind the popular desktop Firefox Web browser, is now hoping to move to the mobile browsing realm with the Fennec browser.

Under development and currently at its Alpha 1 release, Fennec isn’t Mozilla’s first kick at the can for a mobile Web browser, however.

Instead, Fennec replaces the failed Mozilla Minimo browser. While that effort never took off beyond the development phase, Fennec’s team plans for it to make good on Minimo’s original promise.

“Minimo was a project to build a browser for Windows Mobile,” Jay Sullivan, Mozilla’s vice president of mobile, told “It was a good effort, and our developers learned a lot.”

That may be critical for the effort, considering that Fennec enters a competitive space for mobile browsers, with entrenched installations of Opera in place and more recent, and increasingly popular entries from the likes of Apple on the iPhone and Google on Android.

Fennec also relies on the Gecko 1.9.x codebase — the core rendering engine behind Firefox — which likewise competes against other rendering engines, perhaps most notably WebKit, which is backed by Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) and Google (NASDAQ: GOOG).

Still, Fennec’s team sees an opportunity to pick up where Minimo left off.

“The timing is good because the hardware, bandwidth and other factors needed for a full Web experience are here now, and Gecko has made leaps and bounds in performance and memory management that set us up well for mobile,” Sullivan said. “It’s a high priority for Mozilla.”

Mobile browsing itself is an increasingly growing market. Strategy Analytics has reported that there are currently 172 million smart phones in use today. That number will grow to 462 million by 2012.

While Fennec developers are aiming to get a piece of the pie, they admit there is still much work that needs to be done.

“Our priority right now is performance and responsiveness,” Sullivan said. “There are projects underway like TraceMonkey, speculative parsing, graphics, networking and other improvements that will make the browser much faster and make it a good platform for application developers.”

The TraceMonkey project is Mozilla’s new JavaScript engine, designed to be the fastest engine in the space — eclipsing Apple’s SquirrelFish or Google’s V8. TraceMonkey appears in Firefox 3.1 Beta 1.

Beyond speed, Mozilla also faces the challenge of mobile platform availability. Currently, Fennec is only available for Nokia’s OS2008, which runs on the Nokia N810 Internet Tablets. A Windows Mobile port is in the works as well, though it’s not part of the first Alpha release. Mozilla has, however, released desktop versions of Fennec for Mac, Linux and Windows users to test.

“That’s right — you can install Fennec on your Windows, OS X or Linux desktop too!” Mark Finkle, Mozilla platform evangelist, wrote in his blog. “We want you to be able to experiment, provide feedback, write add-ons and generally get involved with the Mozilla Mobile project, even if you don’t have a device.”

Mozilla is currently investigating the development of Fennec for other platforms as well, though not all mobile users — notably, Research in Motion (RIM) BlackBerry users — will be on the list.

“Mozilla is a member of the LiMo Foundation, and are evaluating Symbian and other platforms,” Sullivan said. “We are not actively developing for RIM at this time.”

Even with ports for other mobile platform, clawing its way into the overall market for mobile browsers may still be challenging. Many mobile carriers tend to lock their handheld devices to limit the ability of users to install applications of their choice, though that situation is changing. For instance, both the Apple iPhone and the Google-backed Android mobile operating system offer application “markets,” where users can buy and download apps to add to their phones.

“The market for third-party application has opened up quite a lot, so we expect lots of users to download and install,” Sullivan said. “We are also working on distribution in cases where it aligns with our values and mission.”

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