Fennec Shows Glimpse of Future Mobile Browsing


Mozilla today released the newest alpha version of its Fennec mobile browser for Google Android (s goog) devices and Nokia’s N900 (s nok) handset. In addition to pinch-zooming controls, Fennec includes a feature that syncs desktop passwords, bookmarks, browsing history, form data and open tabs to the smartphone browser. With this version, Mozilla is also improving the browser’s responsiveness for user actions.

I directly downloaded and installed Mozilla’s latest browser on my Google Nexus One, which Mozilla says the client is optimized for; it should run on any device running Android 2.0 or better. You can find the direct .apk download link for Andoid devices here. Like my first impressions of an earlier version, I’m impressed by what I see. The performance isn’t where it needs to be just yet for everyday use — I noticed some lagginess when zooming or page rendering, for example — but I expect it to improve as the browser moves out of alpha status in the future. However, I’m finding value in the use of virtual real estate as the main browser slides left or right to review open tabs, bookmarks and settings.

Of greater importance for folks that use Firefox on the desktop, however, is the integrated Firefox Sync feature. While I don’t typically use Firefox, I tested the synchronization between desktop and mobile browser and it works as advertised. Aside from the obvious benefit of centralized bookmarks, passwords and browsing history, it’s nice to walk away from the desktop and pick up the same sites with a smartphone just minutes later. Mozilla’s competitors realize that sync is important, too; just look at Google’s recently introduced Chrome-to-Phone extension, and the addition of sync to Google Chrome.

Also improved in Fennec is the performance architecture, which I noticed when editing a Google Doc on my handset. Such an activity is near impossible on most other mobile browsers today, but can be done in Fennec because the browser is built on Firefox 4 technology. Here’s what Mozilla says makes the experience more enjoyable:

The main focus of this release is to increase performance and responsiveness to user actions. This is being implemented using two major technologies, “Electrolysis” and “Layers.” This Alpha release includes Electrolysis, which allows the browser interface to run in a separate process from the one rendering Web content. By doing this, Fennec is able to react much faster to user input while pages are loading or CPU intensive JavaScript is running.

As I said, general performance isn’t up to par just yet, but I see a marked improvement when interacting with a Google Doc, which positions Fennec well for future web apps built with HMTL 5 and JavaScript. For now, I’ll stick with the native Android browser and Chrome on my desktop, but if Mozilla keeps improving Fennec, I have a difficult decision to make  in the future. That’s exactly what Mozilla is hoping for: more users for both its desktop and mobile browser for a seamless experience regardless of location.

Related research on GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

What Does the Future Hold For Browsers?


Laurentiu Roman

Does it use any implementation of gtk for Android? If not what does it actually use?

Matt Brubeck

No, Fennec for Android does not use GTK. It draws XUL and HTML widgets directly to an OpenGL surface. (XUL is Mozilla’s cross-platform UI framework, which does not depend on any particular library like GTK or Cocoa.)

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