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Why Fennec's Future Hinges on Android

Mozilla is putting the finishing touches on the first full version of Fennec, the mobile version of its popular Firefox browser set to launch by the end of the year. In order for Mozilla to catch up to its rivals in wireless, though, it’s going to have move quickly to support a variety of popular handsets. Which is why Android (s goog) phones will play a crucial role if Fennec is to close the gap on its rival mobile browsers.

Mozilla’s success on the desktop is well documented. Firefox is closing in on a 25 percent market share in the computer browser space, according to the web measurement firm Net Applications, and continues to chisel away at the dominance of Microsoft’s (s msft) Internet Explorer. But as the browser game has expanded beyond traditional computers into smartphones and other mobile devices, Firefox has largely been left behind. While Fennec is currently available in beta for Nokia (s nok) Maemo devices and in alpha for Windows Mobile, the open-source project WebKit dominates the wireless space, powering browsers for superphones such as Apple’s (s aapl) iPhone, Palm’s (s palm) Pre as well as Android-based handsets.

To be sure, there’s a lot to like about Fennec, which — in a nod to its bigger, PC-centric brother — borrows its name from a small Saharan fox. Fennec leverages the touchscreen functionality that has become a must-have feature for many mobile users, it enables users to sync with Firefox via Mozilla Weave, and it uses the same version of the Gecko layout engine used by Firefox 3.6. But the first full version of Fennec will run on Nokia’s N900, an impressive but pricey piece of hardware that targets a very small market of big-spending early adopters. Mozilla is set to release a version for Windows Mobile next year, providing access to a mere 11 additional percent of the smartphone market. A version for Android-based handsets will follow

Apple is unlikely to make Fennec available through its App Store, of course, and Mozilla hasn’t announced any plans to developer a version for RIM’s BlackBerry OS. So while Maemo’s long-term prospects may be bright, the OS isn’t likely to make much of a dint in the smartphone market anytime soon. Meanwhile, carriers and manufacturers around the world are joining the Android craze. So the sooner Mozilla can churn out a full version of Fennec for Android users, the better its chances of recreating its desktop success in mobile.

15 Responses to “Why Fennec's Future Hinges on Android”

  1. They really should leverage the momentum they have already gained and call it Firefox or Firefox Mobile.

    The marketing is hobbling this before it’s even out of the gate. No one knows or cares what a Fennec is.

  2. The same reason you won’t see a Mozilla based app on a Blackberry is the same for Android:

    Java is too latent for complex computing tasks like video and audio rendering via web standards. And no matter how cute and popular it is, Android’s application framework is the Dalvik VM, a modified Java Virtual Machine. So it would require that Android devices become more expensive and overpowered just to have the ability to run such a powerful application.

    Of course, Jay Sullivan, Mozilla’s VP of their mobile division, announced this impossibility long ago. He’d love to, but the OS just isn’t powerful enough for such quests at the moment. Only Nokia’s Symbian and Maemo, Apple’s iPhone, and Windows Mobile are capable of supporting the code necessary to make Fennec work.

    Apple will surely protest, since it’s crippled browser’s lack of Flash support blocks most web based applications, and creates a market to gouge consumers for apps to fill the void. They will continue this slant until HTML5 is a completed standard. It will be the foolhardy move that will keep them marginalized in the future as consumers become more savvy and aware of Apple’s setup for profit.

    Guess writers don’t do much research anymore. Fennec will do well despite lacking support from Android. Mozilla has brand recognition, is the engine behind the default N900 browser, which is actually better than Fennec at the moment, and that should be enough to give it traction, just like simple browsing did for the iPhone in the US.

    Until Nokia ports Qt to Android, nothing will change. The line between the smartphones and the Nokia N900 handheld workstation will widen, and quite possibly expose it for the powerful platform it is, and Symbian’s common application framework will keep it relevant.

    Why does Fennec need one of the nascent platforms for survival? Apple did it alone. If your product is good and accessible to the public market, it will survive. Period. So nice article, but more research is needed before your next piece.

    • Actually, a lot has changed since Mozilla announced that Android would not get Fennec since Android applications have to be written in Java. Mozilla has now changed their stance and announced future availability of Fennec for Android!

      Why? Well, because Android applications no longer need to be written completely in Java. It’s called the Native Development Kit and it was announced in June 2009.

      Now we just have to wait to see how long it will take to port Fennec to Android using the NDK, especially since the UI will still need to be written in Java.

    • christexaport,

      you need to do your research too: Java is not the only way to go with Android…Google released a Native Developer Kit almost six months ago and shortly thereafter is when Mozilla announced they would make Fennec for Android.

  3. Mozilla said something about Blackberry. Om wrote at October 19: “When I asked why not develop Firefox for BlackBerry, Lilly said that because the BlackBerry is a Java-based platform, Mozilla had no interest in building a browser for it, regardless of the number of devices in use.”