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Summary:

Mozilla’s new Firefox Mobile 4 browser is available for Android and Maemo, boasting faster speeds, desktop synchronization and more, although support for Adobe Flash is missing. The mobile app could offset Mozilla’s falling desktop browser share, but chances are that most Android owners will stay stock.

firefox-mobile-featured

After several beta releases, Mozilla today launched a mobile version of its Firefox web browser for phones that run either the Android or Maemo operating systems. Firefox Mobile 4 brings tabbed browsing, bookmarks, add-ons and more to handsets while also, according to Mozilla’s Brad Lassey, boosting performance up to three times over the stock Google browser. Unlike the Android browser, however, the new Firefox Mobile 4 doesn’t support Adobe Flash Player.

I spent some hands-on time with Firefox Mobile 4 on an Android phone and it works as advertised. Running the SunSpider benchmark test confirmed that the browser is faster when it comes to JavaScript: Mozilla yielded a result of 2874.9 milliseconds, which compares favorably to the 6349.6 milliseconds benchmark result in the native Android browser (a lower number is better). A nifty save-to-PDF feature captures web pages for offline use; handy, Mozilla says for saving directions or an airplane boarding pass. And of course, there are the features that arguably made Firefox for the desktop so popular: the ability to add extensions and customize the browser with themes.

While the addition of Firefox Mobile to the Android Market is great in terms of choice, I’m not sold that many Android owners will actually make the change. The popular Dolphin Browser HD that I’ve recommended before has been around for months and mimics many of the same features found in the new Firefox client. It also supports Adobe Flash for those that want it. Even so, according to the Android Market, Dolphin has been downloaded between one and five million times. That’s a large number for sure, but it pales in comparison to the total number of Android devices in the market. Last year alone, for example, an estimated 67.2 million Android smartphones were sold, according to the Gartner research group. In Mozilla’s favor is that Dolphin has enjoyed millions of downloads with little brand recognition; Mozilla touting the Firefox name ought to do better.

Chances are that most folks who install the Firefox Mobile browser are those that are already using Firefox on the desktop because of the Firefox Sync feature. With it, all passwords, bookmarks, browsing history and even open tabs are synchronized between desktop and handset. By comparison, Google’s Android browser doesn’t yet sync this type of data, although there is a Chrome-to-phone extension to shoot a website from desktop to mobile. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Google add this functionality in the future to Android as its Chrome browser is already synching some similar data across desktops. Plus the Honeycomb powered Motorola Xoom already syncs bookmarks with Chrome on the desktop.

For now, however, those that prefer Firefox on the desktop are the most likely candidates to install the mobile browser. And in turn, that could boost the market share of Firefox users, which has been declining of late — even as those using Google Chrome is on the rise, per this data I pulled from the W3Counter site today.

Over the past two year period, Mozilla’s Firefox and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer share have both dropped while use of Google’s Chrome browser is rising faster than its peers. One way for Mozilla to counter is through the mobile browser, which, when paired with Firefox syncing on the desktop, offers a competitive advantage. But if Google adds similar functionality between Chrome and the stock Android browser, the edge is negated.

The choice of browser is as personal a preference as choice of clothes for the day, however, so Mozilla is sure to see a number of Android owners try Firefox Mobile; especially while it remains faster than the stock browser and retains other key differences. Mozilla will have to work hard to get the word out however: few new Android handset owners will likely even look for alternative browsers. I’m fine with stock browser and the Dolphin Browser HD on my devices, but if you use Android, check in on our poll and tell us if you’re going to use Firefox Mobile 4 on your phone or tablet.

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  1. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

    If I recall, my main impetus for switching desktop browser, from IE to Firefox, many years ago, was a truly lousy Web browsing experience. My more recent choice to give Chrome a chance was largely experimental, and only took root after it provided surprisingly better experience.

    Another factor, at least with regards to the mobile browser, is how the stock launcher impacts overall usability.

  2. Have you tried Opera Mobile 11 which was launched last week? While the picture on desktop may be different, Opera blows Firefox away on Android. Just see the comments for both apps in Android Market.

  3. Have you tried Opera Mobile 11 which was released last week? While the picture on desktop may be different, Opera Mobile blows Firefox away on Android. Just see the comments for both apps in Android Market.

  4. Windows used to come bundled with a browser, which had a 96% market share at the time. Why would anyone install another browser? Yet that didn’t stop Firefox from revolutionizing how people access the Internet.

    Is this the same situation? Not really. But your premise is pretty weak. Firefox is currently the best browser on any mobile browser, yet you unfortunately felt the need to give this article a negative spin.

    If you spend a little more time using Firefox for mobile, I think you’ll find that the way it does tabs will win you away from the stock browser and Dolphin. Sync, if you use Firefox on the desktop, is a true killer feature.

    I have always found Dolphin to be ugly and clunky, and the stock browser to be great as long as you don’t want to do anything too advanced (like, say, tabs). Firefox has a beautiful and easy to use interface, and almost any functionality in Dolphin can be added to Firefox via extensions.

    1. John, as I said in the article, choice of browser is personal. That’s why I didn’t make a universal statement like you did when you said “Firefox is currently the best browser on any mobile browser.” I’ve tested (and written about here) the various beta versions of Firefox Mobile in the past; but it hasn’t won me over. If it has for you, great. And you pointed out, if you use Firefox on the desktop, Sync is the killer feature. I alluded to that and also the risk of feature parity if a similar function comes to Google’s stock browser. Use what you like and be happy! :)

  5. Firefox Mobile is missing a few things that keep me from switching:

    1) Flash Support
    2) Faster Start up speed (right now it takes too long to start)
    3) X-marks and Lastpass support (I know this is not up to Mozilla and there is Firefox sync but I prefer the former)

    if those 3 things get added then I would switch. I may even be able to live without number 3 but the first 2 are essential.

  6. Chrome has been a surprising flop considering who’s backing it. after rising up in the market quickly (taking marketshare from IE) it has been stalled at 10-11% for quite awhile. FF has been stalled at 22-24% percent for ages & has been almost completely unaffected. Chrome had nowhere near the effect on the industry that all the doomsayers said it would.

    I just don’t understand why Chrome advocates such as yourself always go out of your way to bad mouth FF, especially considering it paved the way for all non-IE browsers to get meaningful marketshare. reminds me alot of clowns like Leo LaPorte who pronounce everything “dead” just because they don’t like it & ignore real market numbers. thats not journalism, thats FoxNews style slant pieces to further 1’s own agenda.

    tread carefully Kevin, your pretty well respected & I personally think 1 of the best mobile voices in the industry (along with Chippy). but in a flash your could turn out like Leo, Walt, Pogue. while rich, lost all credibility among “real” geeks. money wont follow you to the grave but legacy will, I’d rather be Dylan than GaGa.

    1. Appreciate the feedback, although I wish you’d sign your comments with a name so I know who I’m having a conversation with: I get the reasons you mentioned prior for the constantly changing identity, but still. ;)

      I’m not proclaiming that FF is dead nor did I badmouth the implementation of it for Android. I’m pointing out that it has a tough road ahead of it given that most Android users either won’t know about the mobile version and/or it could be limited mainly to those that use FF on the desktop. I don’t think either of those premises are an unreasonable stretch, and I certainly don’t have an agenda here other than to share the news, offer my opinion and continue the conversation with readers. I always defer to users choosing the best tool for the task at hand.

    2. I’ve been reading Kevin’s posts for several years and listening to the podcasts as well. I like and appreciate the casual, knowledgeable and non-partisan style of both. Invariably he and his colleagues inspire me to try things I might otherwise miss including rooting, browsers, run-trackers, devices, and the like. I say keep up the great work and don’t sweat the comparisons to others including GaGa (where did that come from anyway?!)

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