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Summary:

Firefox is a laggard in the mobile browser market, having lost early advantage to WebKit which is at the core popular mobile browsers including those on Android and iPhone. The not-for-profit group is confident that it can stage a comeback by focusing on MeeGo and Android.

Mozilla, the not-for-profit entity behind the Firefox browser, knows it’s late to the mobile party. It knows that in Apple and Google it has two highly motivated and well-funded competitors. But it also knows how to compete when the odds are stacked against it.

“We are in the first inning of the mobile browser game,” Jay Sullivan, VP of products at Mozilla, said to me. Until recently, Sullivan was Mozilla’s VP of mobile, which saw him help Firefox get a toehold in the mobile arena. The company started with the Nokia N900; it was based on the Linux variant Maemo, which merged with Intel’s Mobilin and is now known as MeeGo. It is going to be underlying platform for most high-end phones being developed by Nokia. MeeGo and Android will be two key mobile platforms of focus for Firefox, Sullivan said.

“As a third-party application, we have the brand recognition for people to try us on Android,” he said. “But to succeed we have to do better than native browsers.” If it can build a compelling product that’s better than those of its rivals, Firefox can overcome its slow start, according to Sullivan. Mozilla will introduce the Firefox for Android Browser later this year; desktop synchronization, add-ons and its so-called AwesomeBar are some of the key features that Mozilla plans to include in order to compete against its mobile browser rivals. “Android is where we are going to find out the future,” he said.

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Mozilla VP of Products, Jay Sullivan

It’s a smart bet. After all, Apple doesn’t allow either browsing on the iPhone or JavaScript engines, which compete and conflict with the device’s native ones. If Mozilla has any hope of getting Firefox onto Cupertino’s devices, it will be via its new application, Home, which it plans to submit to the iTunes App Store sometime in July.

Home allows you to get access to your desktop browsing history, open tabs and other such metadata via a cloud-based service, Firefox Sync. I saw an early version of the application when the Mozilla folks visited our office, and it’s pretty impressive.

When I asked Sullivan what he thought of being viewed as a laggard, he pointed out that while Mozilla was not “the hot kind on the block” and that “everything Google does gets a lot of attention,” Firefox is still continuing to grow. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s safe. Only today news emerged that Google’s Chrome was now the third most popular browser in the U.S. Mozilla has also come under fire from the likes of Blake Ross, a co-creator of Firefox who now works for Facebook.

Sullivan said that Mozilla is paying attention to what others are saying and trying to fix the problems. Much of its focus is on improving stability and boosting performance, while at the same time seeking opportunities beyond the desktop. The recent release of Firefox 3.6.6 is a step in the right direction. The group will release Firefox 4 beta in a few weeks and make the full 4.0 version of the desktop browser available before the end of 2010. And if Steve Jobs thinks it’s OK, maybe Firefox Home will be available on the iPhone before the end of the summer.  “We have never retreated from the competition,” Sullivan said. “And we know we have a lot of work to do.”

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  1. It’s a shame Mozilla is so late to the game with its mobile browser. I’m very intrigued to see what they come up with.

  2. Why not check it out for yourself? Buy a Nokia n900 and you can test Mozilla Firefox/Fennec out for yourself.

    If you want a real opinion of it, it’s nice. A nearly full version of the desktop browser. You don’t have to go to m.whatever.com anymore. But on the sad side, Flash is not integrated right now although I think it can be overrided and enabled with a plug-in. Also, it’s a little slow compared to the native browser because it not preloaded and constantly running like the default mozilla based browser, microb.

  3. I have installed the alpha version of Fennec(the firefox mobile browser) on Android. While I liked it (notice the word liked), it provided a pretty accurate desktop browsing experience but at a cost. It is a 30MB application, by FAR the largest application on my android, and I found it slow compared to the browser which comes with Android, and much slower than the Dolphin HD browser, which includes tabbed browsing, add-ons, and a ton of other features in a 4MB application while matching or surpassing browser rendering and accuracy. I would say they have quite a long way to go.

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