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Summary:

Has Mozilla truly brought a desktop browser to the small screen? The not-so-easy answer is yes and no. But this first version of Firefox for Maemo looks promising for an initial release. And Weave brings desktop data to your phone — even open tabs.

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I think Mozilla just set a record for the fasted progression from a release candidate to a final version of software. Has anyone else done that in a two days? Mozilla did with the final release of Firefox Mobile for Maemo, which followed Release Candidate 3 of the mobile browser by 48 hours. Then again, I can’t be sure if there’s actually any difference in the RC version and the final version — when I tried to install v.1.0, the N900 told me that I already had Fennec installed. Using the Maemo Application Manager to check for updates didn’t show any new browser either. In fact, the App Manager reports the version as 1.0.0. Maybe Mozilla didn’t set a record after all. ;)

Regardless of version semantics. Mobile Firefox is here and I’ve been using it for the past two days. In ways, it’s very similar to the native browser on the N900. That should be no surprise though — the MicroB browser runs on a Mozilla engine as well. But Mobile Firefox is more like the desktop version of Firefox. And it should be — it runs on the same Gecko rendering engine as Firefox on a full-sized computer. Mozilla’s “Trace Monkey” JavaScript engine is in there, as is support for the Weave platform.

One of the first things I did was install the Weave plugin on the N900. Within a minute, the tabs that I had open were synched over to the phone — and I like how Mozilla implemented this feature. Instead of actually opening multiple tabs on the phone, you’re presented with a web page with links to those tabs. Some might say that Mozilla isn’t really replicating the tabs, but if they did, you might bog down your phone with a dozen tabs from a desktop. Until mobile hardware becomes more powerful, I’d rather control which tabs are opened on the phone. For some reason, my Bookmarks haven’t come over yet and I’m not sure why. I’ve verified the Weave settings, but no dice. It’s likely the issue is isolated to my Weave account and probably not widespread since it’s not in the known issues list on Mozilla’s site.

Where are those bookmarks?

Mozilla does make good use of limited screen real estate with this mobile version. Dragging the browser off-screen to the right exposes open tabs, a bookmarks button and a PC button for Weave.

Open tabs, bookmarks folder and PC button

Likewise, moving the browser off-screen to the left provides a bookmark button, navigation buttons to move forward or back and an options button that opens up a settings screen.

Favorite, forward, back and settings buttons

Settings and Add-Ons

Mozilla should be commended for fitting so much on a small display. That settings screen brings you to one of the main reasons people use Firefox — add-ons. There are plenty to choose from but you’ll likely want one before others. Mozilla recommends installation of the YouTube Enabler to watch YouTube videos in the browser. And that’s a bit of bummer because the native MicroB browser supports Adobe Flash natively. Mozilla explained the issue with the release of RC3 and reiterate it in the release notes for the final version:

“Support for plugins in Firefox for Maemo has been disabled. On most Web pages that use the Adobe Flash plugin, the performance of the plugin didn’t meet our standards, and the interactivity and performance of the entire Web page was negatively impacted. This was especially felt on pages with multiple instances of the plugin. Advanced users can enable plugins for experimentation and testing purposes only. We plan to provide a browser add-on that will enable you to selectively enable plugins on certain sites, because some sites, like YouTube, work well.”

Flash support without a plugin is actually one the big selling features of the N900 and its native browser, because it trumps nearly every other handset out there in this area. So to not see that same support in Firefox for Maemo is a bit disappointing. However, the Mozilla team is working on it, so hopefully it arrives soon.

Of course, the Awesome Bar works just like you’d expect. Typing in it brings up sites from your browsing history or can be used to search the web. While the Awesome Bar is indeed awesome, it’s no longer exclusive. The Android browser on my Nexus One behaves in much the same way these days, so Mozilla has lost some of its advantage there. Just like Android, Firefox for Maemo is also location aware.

Overall, I still feel that the native MicroB browser is a little bit better of a performer, but again, it could be due to the sites that I’m hitting. But both render well, use the same double-tap to zoom in or out and are stable. If you crave Flash support, you’re better off with MicroB at this point. On the other hand, the Weave synchronization makes Firefox for Maemo more attractive if you prefer automatic bookmark, password and tab management between the desktop client and your handheld. Or you could just do what I’m doing — using both on an as needed basis!

As far as a comparison to browsers on other platforms, Mozilla offers a bit more functionality, but it still seems a little clunkier than the browsers on Android and iPhone platforms. It’s been too long since I’ve used browsers on other mobile platforms, so I’m not going to make a comparison there. Firefox’s performance seems to lag its competitors a bit, but this is only the first version — I anticipate a more positive experience as software is optimized and hardware matures. But I’d call it more of a desktop-class browser than its mobile peers — and that’s part of what Mozilla is trying to do here. Ultimately, we all want a seamless and consistent web experience regardless of the device we use. Firefox for Maemo is the first step towards that goal.

  1. Their comment about impact of flash on browsing equally applies on my laptop!

    But indeed N900/youtube is ok, whilst trying to watch iplayer TV programs doesn’t really cut it. 1 fps?

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  2. Sounds like the preinstalled Mozilla browser is preferable in some big ways as of this moment. Was it worth upgrading to Firefox Mobile for its strengths compared to the preinstalled browser?

    Two unrelated questions but questions I’ve been wondering about the N900:

    If the N900 is truly a mobile computer, can it install programs just as a computer would? For example can I install iTunes on it as I would an actual computer?

    I haven’t read about, or seen videos on, using Word documents on the N900. This is a big deciding factor for me. Most reviews that mention it simply mention there is the DataViz Docs to Go viewer but that’s all it says, with no review of such. Can you comment on this from your experience?

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    1. It truly is a mobile computer. However, it is not a Windows computer nor an OSX computer.

      You can’t run iTunes on a linux computer, for example, and you can’t run Wine on the N900 because it is not on the x86 architecture. It can run just about any Linux applications, provided they have an Armel port, including the full Firefox, OpenOffice, etc — you’d need a chroot for it, and it won’t use the new nice-looking big finger buttons and the like, however.

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  3. GoodThings2Life Saturday, January 30, 2010

    Nothing will please me more than when the Windows Mobile version is released so I can forever send Opera Mobile to oblivion.

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  4. Kevin, do you find that you accidentally move the browser off-screen to the left and right very often (thus displaying tabs, bookmarks, etc.) as you scroll through pages? I’ve always worried that it might be too easy to accidentally open those panes since the earliest videos of Fennec surfaced.

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  5. I haven’t had the problem of moving the browser off-screen to the left or right accidentally. They do show up while scrolling, but the main browsing area sort of “snaps” in and you have to scroll a little farther to get the bookmark or settings tabs to snap in as well.

    I prefer using the rocking slider buttons on top to control zoom though, which is only on the built-in browser. And then of course there is flash support, so I don’t see a big advantage to firefox unless you want Weave or the Awesome bar.

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    1. Ah, that makes sense. Thanks Kenrick.

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  6. One thing the article also forgot to mention that I think is a must-have feature is the gesture zooming. Built-in browser allowes you to incrementally zoom using a “corkscrew” gesture on the screen (or you can use volume rocker as well). Its a great way to zoom in/out on a webpage in small steps rather than the double-tap which is only an zoom/no zoom kinda thimg. Since the N900 doesn’t support multi-touch, corkscrew-zooming is a fantastic alternative.

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