Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Firefox Mobile: Where it stands now

Just to get it out of the way, Mozilla had no official news to share at CTIA 2010 in Las Vegas. That didn't stop us from catching up with Jay Sullivan, Mozilla's vice president of mobile, to lay a finger on the pulse of Firefox's browser for mobile phones. (After all, why should Opera have all the fun?)

Mozilla continues to actively develop for Nokia's Maemo/MeeGo platform, the host of the first-ever Firefox for Mobile 1.0. The problem is that Firefox is far from being widely available in its cell phone-friendly form, extensions and all. The Nokia platform's short reach makes up just a fraction of the mobile market, and Firefox is only available on two devices--the Nokia N900 and the N810 Internet Tablet.

There's even more bad news: Mozilla has put the skids on developing Firefox for Windows phones (it reached its fourth alpha stage) as a result of some decisions Microsoft made in supporting code going forward (Silverlight and XNA, to be specific) that Mozilla does not use to write its browser--essentially creating a coding impasse. Unless or until Microsoft can provide a native development kit (NDK), work on Firefox mobile for Windows phones has flat-out stopped.

The good news, if you're patient (and not a Windows phone user), is that Mozilla is also actively working on a version of Firefox for Android phones. Mozilla powers all its various Firefox versions from the same Gecko engine, which means that Firefox for Windows, Mac, and mobile are all created with the same ingredients (specifically, Mozilla's XUL and Web standards like HTML, JavaScript, and CSS programming languages.) The takeaway message here is that once Mozilla can get the Gecko platform running smoothly for Android, porting an Android version of Firefox is a fairly simple next step. Sullivan stressed that his goal is to ship at least a beta version of Firefox for Android by late 2010, but no promises to the browser-hungry Android mob.

What about video?
When asked about how Firefox will handle video playback on mobile going forward, Sullivan's answer was consistent with Mozilla's one-for-all programming philosophy. Firefox will support HTML 5 video tags on all its browsers, leaving it up to producers to encode their videos with the new standards, so said videos can play back in Firefox mobile as they would from the desktop.

On mobile handsets that harbor Adobe's Flash plug-in, it's possible to enable support for that video technology, too. However, Mozilla disabled Flash by default at the n'th moment before the browser's final release, citing that the video playback quality in Firefox just wasn't up to snuff. A YouTube extension for Firefox mobile provided the workaround users needed to get YouTube videos to play.

While Mozilla's Sullivan made no promises, we're keeping those fingers crossed that production on Android will include a public alpha in the next few months. A spate of mobile-ready add-ons will be sure to join the few dozen that already exist.

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