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):