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Summary:

Mozilla is ceasing all work on Firefox for Windows Mobile and Windows Phone 7 devices, as Microsoft doesn’t offer an NDK. That doesn’t leave many mobile platform choices for the Mozilla team. What does this say about open source in the mobile marketplace?

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Mozilla yesterday stopped development on its browser for Microsoft’s mobile platform, citing the lack of a Native Development Kit. The new Windows Phone 7 operating system is built upon Windows CE 6.0, but without an NDK, Mozilla isn’t moving forward. In fact, progress on Windows Mobile 6.x devices is halting as well. That’s a shame because the Mozilla team outed an Alpha browser version for the current Microsoft-powered handsets back in 2008 and updated it last year. Granted, the door is being closed by the Mozilla team here — they’re making a choice to wait for an NDK — but there’s a larger aspect to this situation: It sheds light on open vs closed approaches in the mobile space.

Stepping back for a second, where does this move put Mozilla and their open source approach? Instead of focusing on browsers for closed or controlled ecosystems like Apple’s — and so far with Windows Phone 7, like Microsoft’s — the project effort will focus on Android and Maemo, just as Om predicted late last year on GigaOm. Both platforms embrace the open source path that Mozilla follows. Google introduced an NDK last year and since Mozilla programs Firefox in C/C++, the NDKs support the code base. Prior to Google’s release of an NDK, Mozilla would have had to create the browser in Java. Had they done that successfully, we might have seen it on Research In Motion’s BlackBerry platform, but that never happened — and it’s unlikely that it ever will. There isn’t an NDK that I know of for the Maemo platform, but according to the SDK licensing agreement, some closed Nokia code, functions and binaries. And Maemo is built upon Linux rather than an a closed, proprietary platform.

So where does this leave Mozilla, and other open source vendors, in the mobile market? Until Microsoft releases a Native Development Kit — and there’s no guarantee they will — Mozilla doesn’t have many choices left. It could take the same approach that Opera is trying and attempt to get a browser through the iTunes App Store approval process. I don’t foresee that happening for Opera, which just submitted their browser application for approval. Like many of us, Mozilla will likely be watching to see how that situation pans out. That rules out the iPhone and Windows Phone 7 platforms for now. And unless or until RIM radically alters the BlackBerry platform, they’re not a potential development target either. Palm now offers a PDK, or Plug-In Development Kit, that supports C and C++, but I don’t expect Mozilla to focus on webOS given Palm’s current struggles.

There’s simply nowhere else for Mozilla to turn in the mobile space, given the constraints and the way it wants to code. From a bigger picture perspective, I’m wondering how the situation impacts open source development in general when it comes to the mobile market. There’s a significant number of Linux-based phones available, but they’re not on a common platform. With the bigger players either using or moving towards more closed systems, what’s an open source developer to do? I’m not a coder, so I’d love to hear thoughts from developers. Is the Mozilla situation unique and not a sign of things to come or are you generally concerned with the way the mobile landscape is shifting?

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

What Does the Future Hold For Browsers?

  1. I think a good part of the Windows Phone 7 decision is that Gecko (the core of Firefox) is a big project written in C, not that it’s open source. Without a C compiler and API, they can’t do a lot. Rewriting Gecko in Java (or Microsoft’s preferred development language) would be a new, big project, so effectively this means they’ve decided not to do that with their existing resources.

    Stopping development for Windows Mobile 6 is a different decision, probably also related to limited resources and Windows Mobile 6′s remaining viability.

    I do wonder about Gecko’s long term viability, since the emergence of the WebKit layout engine and its adoption by a number of vendors’ browsers instead of Gecko, e.g. Apple Safari, Google Chrome, Nokia’s S60 Web Browser, Palm’s WebOS, and RIM’s probable future release.

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    1. GoodThings2Life Tuesday, March 23, 2010

      Actually, Microsoft’s preferred development platform for WP7S is Silverlight/XNA/C# via Visual Studio, which isn’t as difficult to migrate from C/C++ from my understanding. But I’m not a developer, so I could be wrong on the simplicity factor.

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  2. I feel no sympathy for Mozilla/Firefox. You write for the platform–or you don’t. Winmo7 decided (for now) to stick with .net technologies, and that’s probably for the best. If Mozilla really wants to get in on winmo7, or any other platform, they’ll just have to obey the rules of the platform like everyone else.

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  3. Java is Microsoft’s preferred development language? Umm how about Silverlight for Windows Phone 7.

    Anyway – Mozilla should not be so picky – I think at this point no one really cares if Mozilla mobile ever makes it onto any phone.

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  4. I don’t get what Open Source or the approach thereof has do to with this. You could just as easily develop an Open Source app in .NET or Java as in C/C++

    Mozilla has gotten a lot of cross-platform mileage out of C/C++ – as has a gigantic number of other companies and projects with sources both open and closed. The problem is that you can’t just magically switch a mature app to a new dev environment overnight.

    It comes down to a weight of the bang-for-the-buck in porting to .NET versus just waiting things out in C/C++ This has nothing to do with Open Source.

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