Is there room for another mobile browser on smartphones? Actions speak louder than words, so Mozilla is answering that question by releasing its first iteration of the Firefox browser for Android handsets. Fennec, as the browser is known, is in a pre-alpha state, meaning it’s not ready for the general populace. That didn’t stop me from installing it on my Google Nexus One (s goog), however, and even in this early stage of the life cycle, Fennec is looking very nice.
Why an alternative browser, though, when the stock Google web browser is already quite good? In a word: Weave. Mozilla’s Weave project synchronizes browsing data between desktop and mobile — bookmarks, saved passwords, browsing history and even open tabs. Using Weave, for example, you could have several tabs open on your desktop in Firefox, walk away, open Firefox on a phone and see the same tabs appear. Google offers a similar feature with its Chrome browser, but Mozilla’s implementation is farther along in the handset space.
I haven’t taken Weave for a spin on Android since it’s highly experimental, but I did use the browser for a bit this morning. For those not familiar with Fennec on a smartphone, Mozilla leverages off-screen space to control bookmarks, open tabs and settings. You can slide the main browsing page left or right to see the controls, which provides access to advanced features on the small screen without cluttering up the browsing experience — a clever implementation that you can see in my screen captures below. There’s currently no support for multitouch zooming or Adobe Flash (s adbe), however. Fennec on the Nokia N900 (s nok) originally included support for a Flash plug-in, but Mozilla later pulled it, saying, “The performance of the plugin didn’t meet our standards.”
In this early stage, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone use Fennec as a full-time browser — nor does Mozilla. The code isn’t optimized and performance is sluggish. And this first version requires a phone with some higher-end horsepower — it only works on Android 2.0 devices and up, for example. But it does show promise and if Mozilla can gain traction on the phone with its browser, it could keep more people using Firefox on the desktop thanks to the Weave experience.
Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):