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Can Mozilla Catch Up on Mobile? Beta Fennec Builds Say Yes

Mozilla is at it again. Not content to slug it out on the desktop, the Moz folks are taking a run at the mobile market with Fennec. The betas released last week suggest that they're on the right track.

While the world is watching Firefox 3.5, the Mozilla team continues to work on getting its mobile strategy together. Last week Fennec 1.0 beta 2 for Maemo and 1.0 alpha 2 for Windows Mobile were released. Can the Moz folks get a foothold on the mobile market?

Fennec is Mozilla’s Web browser for mobile devices, based on Firefox but redesigned for touchscreen devices. A Fennec, by the way, is a “small nocturnal fox,” so the name is in keeping with other Fox-related releases from Mozilla.

Firefox hasn’t overtaken Internet Explorer on the desktop, but the browser has made significant strides and by any objective measure is a success for the Mozilla Foundation. But the mobile market is a different beast entirely, and Mozilla is running far behind in stepping up with a Mobile browser.

A Look at Fennec

Even though Fennec is aimed at mobile devices, you don’t need to have a supported mobile device to run Fennec. So if you don’t happen to have a Maemo-enabled device or a Windows Mobile device, you’re not out of luck. You can find builds of Fennec for Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. This is interesting for developers and as a preview of what you might see on mobile devices — but not very interesting as a desktop browser.

The Fennec UI is very basic, sort of like a Fischer-Price replica of a Web browser. Everything is big, chunky, and meant for clumsy fingers. The UI for Fennec isn’t a desktop browser crammed into a mobile device, it’a a whole new beast.

The UI is spartan, to say the least. When you fire up Fennec, you get a location bar and little else. The welcome screen displays two icons that suggest dragging your finger across the interface. On the desktop, click the left mouse button and hold it, and drag right or left — you’ll see the open tabs to the left and the navigation bar to the right.

On the desktop, using the scroll wheel doesn’t scroll the page — it enlarges or shrinks the page instead. I expect this works using hand gestures on mobile devices, so you can quickly zoom a page to be able to read it better on a tiny screen. Fennec also has no context menu, which would be hard to manipulate on a mobile device.

Overall, the Mozilla team has come up with a pretty good interface for non-desktop browsing.

The Navigation bar is pretty simple: You have a star to bookmark sites, and a right and left arrow for going forward and back. At the bottom of the Nav bar, you’ll also see a gear icon, to open the Fennec preferences.

Preferences

Like Fennec itself, the preference dialog is greatly simplified compared to Mozilla Firefox. You have three content preferences (“Show Images,” “Enable JavaScript,” and “Enable Plugins”) and three security options (“Allow cookies,” “Remember passwords,” and a “Clear recent history” button).

You’ll also see a download manager. Downloads can be sorted by date, site, name, or you can search the downloads. In my mobile usage, I haven’t spent much time downloading files or anything aside from Web pages, but I suppose this could be a worthwhile feature if you’re inclined to save files directl to the mobile.

Finally there’s also an add-on manager, though Fennec doesn’t have a great heaping pile of add-ons at the moment, and no featured add-ons for Fennec just yet. I did try it out with Weave, and it seemed to work just fine. Installing add-ons is as simple as clicking “Install” and letting Fennec do its thing.

I gave Weave a test run, syncing Firefox with Weave first and then syncing Fennec. One major complaint — when typing in my passphrase and username, they were shown in the clear rather than obscured. Bad, bad idea. But, aside from that major glitch, Weave and Fennec work together just fine so far.

Can Mozilla Pull It Off?

The big question is whether Mozilla can establish any kind of foothold in the mobile market. The other guys have quite a lead, and the mobile market is quite a bit different than the desktop market.

Mozilla has a few interesting pieces that would make Fennec compelling for mobile users. In particular, Weave could offer a link to a user’s desktop browser that would make a Firefox/Fennec combination attractive to users who spend a good chunk of time browsing the Web on a mobile device.

The Add-On architecture in Fennec is another. While Opera is strongly entrenched in Mobile devices, and Safari (at the moment) offers the best mobile browsing experience, a healthy add-on ecosystem could make Fennec much more interesting.

Of course, there’s the question of whether Fennec could even compete with Apple on the iPhone: Since Apple gets to nix apps that compete with its iPhone offerings, Cupertino could simply refuse to allow Fennec into the sacred ground of the App Store. This would leave Fennec to slug it out with Opera and Mobile IE on other devices.

If you have a compatible mobile device, I’d definitely recommend taking Fennec for a test spin. It doesn’t add anything to the desktop experience, but its rendering quality and speed could give Safari a run for its money.

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