The first production version of Firefox for Mobile has been released, for Nokia's Maemo operating system. But Mozilla already seems to be scaling back its deployment plans, and unexpectedly the mobile browser will not support Adobe Flash.
Practically speaking, the mobile version of the Firefox 3.6 browser, code-named Fennec, will run only on Nokia's N900 smartphone/Internet tablet, which runs Maemo 5, a Linux based OS entirely separate from the Symbian code that runs the vast majority of Nokia handsets. (Check out PC World's review of the N900) Mozilla is readying a version for Windows Mobile, though it's not yet in beta release (the release notes for the Alpha 3 version are online); and has started work to run the mobile browser on the Android operating system. But don't hold your breath waiting for the browser to show up on an iPhone, or on a BlackBerry or Symbian device.
"We do not have plans to build an iPhone browser due to constraints with the OS environment and distributionm" according to Mozilla's mobile FAQ. "Due to its Java-based operating system and the inability to build native components, Firefox is not compatible on the Blackberry OS. We currently have no plans to develop Firefox for the Symbian platform."
The Fennec project first surfaced in Summer of 2008. The beta version was released in March 2009.
For the mobile browser, Mozilla took the key internal components of the desktop Firefox browser, crafted a new user interface specifically for small handset displays, and built a new add-on called Weave Sync to let the desktop and mobile browsers synchronize tabs, history, bookmarks, and passwords.
Many of the features and capabilities that users find on the desktop version are preserved in the mobile browser, such as the "Awesome Bar" which learns about your favorite Web sites and can suggestion search options for you, minimizing your typing on the handset. Mobile Firefox users also can load "add-ons," the small packages of code that customize, personalize and extend the browser.
The Add-ons Manager was redesigned and simplified for the mobile browser, by merging some lists of add-on types, stacking some sections into a list that could be easily manipulated by finger flicks, and removing some options. (For information on developing extensions for mobile Firefox, go here.)
But for Maemo, Mozilla disabled support for plug-ins, thereby making it impossible to support a plug-in for Adobe Flash, which is widely used on Websites for animated, interactive, multi-media content. Apple, for example, has been criticized, even vilified for not supporting Flash in the mobile Safari browser that runs on the iPhone.
Mozilla's FAQ for the mobile browser explains the reasons: "On most Web pages that use the Adobe Flash plugin, the performance of the plugin didn't meet our standards, and the interactivity and performance of the entire Web page was negatively impacted. This was especially felt on pages with multiple instances of the plugin. Advanced users can enable plugins for experimentation and testing purposes only. We are working on ways for the user to have control of which sites to enable plugins for, as some sites, like YouTube, do work quite well. That capability will most likely be packaged as a browser add-on."
In the meantime, Mozilla recommends downloading an add-in that lets you view videos on YouTube, and you can add a YouTube search button to the browser.
Firefox for mobile supports some features HTML 5, which is the next major revision of the markup language, intended to provide a foundation for a new generation of powerful Web applications with many of the characteristics of native applications. The specific HTML 5 capabilities in the mobile browser include Location-Aware browsing, the <canvas> and <svg> tags, Web workers and offline storage.
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww
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