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.