Given Choice, Will You Install Firefox for Android?

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After several beta releases, Mozilla today launched a mobile version of its Firefox web browser for phones that run either the Android or Maemo operating systems. Firefox Mobile 4 brings tabbed browsing, bookmarks, add-ons and more to handsets while also, according to Mozilla’s Brad Lassey, boosting performance up to three times over the stock Google browser. Unlike the Android browser, however, the new Firefox Mobile 4 doesn’t support Adobe Flash Player.

I spent some hands-on time with Firefox Mobile 4 on an Android phone and it works as advertised. Running the SunSpider benchmark test confirmed that the browser is faster when it comes to JavaScript: Mozilla yielded a result of 2874.9 milliseconds, which compares favorably to the 6349.6 milliseconds benchmark result in the native Android browser (a lower number is better). A nifty save-to-PDF feature captures web pages for offline use; handy, Mozilla says for saving directions or an airplane boarding pass. And of course, there are the features that arguably made Firefox for the desktop so popular: the ability to add extensions and customize the browser with themes.

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While the addition of Firefox Mobile to the Android Market is great in terms of choice, I’m not sold that many Android owners will actually make the change. The popular Dolphin Browser HD that I’ve recommended before has been around for months and mimics many of the same features found in the new Firefox client. It also supports Adobe Flash for those that want it. Even so, according to the Android Market, Dolphin has been downloaded between one and five million times. That’s a large number for sure, but it pales in comparison to the total number of Android devices in the market. Last year alone, for example, an estimated 67.2 million Android smartphones were sold, according to the Gartner research group. In Mozilla’s favor is that Dolphin has enjoyed millions of downloads with little brand recognition; Mozilla touting the Firefox name ought to do better.

Chances are that most folks who install the Firefox Mobile browser are those that are already using Firefox on the desktop because of the Firefox Sync feature. With it, all passwords, bookmarks, browsing history and even open tabs are synchronized between desktop and handset. By comparison, Google’s Android browser doesn’t yet sync this type of data, although there is a Chrome-to-phone extension to shoot a website from desktop to mobile. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Google add this functionality in the future to Android as its Chrome browser is already synching some similar data across desktops. Plus the Honeycomb powered Motorola Xoom already syncs bookmarks with Chrome on the desktop.

For now, however, those that prefer Firefox on the desktop are the most likely candidates to install the mobile browser. And in turn, that could boost the market share of Firefox users, which has been declining of late — even as those using Google Chrome is on the rise, per this data I pulled from the W3Counter site today.

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Over the past two year period, Mozilla’s Firefox and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer share have both dropped while use of Google’s Chrome browser is rising faster than its peers. One way for Mozilla to counter is through the mobile browser, which, when paired with Firefox syncing on the desktop, offers a competitive advantage. But if Google adds similar functionality between Chrome and the stock Android browser, the edge is negated.

The choice of browser is as personal a preference as choice of clothes for the day, however, so Mozilla is sure to see a number of Android owners try Firefox Mobile; especially while it remains faster than the stock browser and retains other key differences. Mozilla will have to work hard to get the word out however: few new Android handset owners will likely even look for alternative browsers. I’m fine with stock browser and the Dolphin Browser HD on my devices, but if you use Android, check in on our poll and tell us if you’re going to use Firefox Mobile 4 on your phone or tablet.

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