A Look at Firefox Mobile

Firefox is coming to Android devices. Does Android need another browser and can FF and it's add-ons displace the default software on the growing mobile platform?

Take the Poll: Do you think Firefox Mobile for Android will be a popular browser option?

As Firefox inches slowly towards its March 26 release date, the Mozilla folks are also working on Firefox Mobile for Android — a port of the beloved Firefox browser to the Android platform. Can Mozilla make significant headway on mobile devices? Signs point to yes.

Bearing in mind that Firefox 4 on Android is still in beta, I went to try it out for a bit and see how well it fares on my Nexus One. Note that I recently got the Gingerbread update on the Nexus, though I’m not sure if that has any impact on Firefox performance or not compared to earlier Android releases.

The Good

Installation is dead easy, just go to the Android market on the device and search for Firefox. Or look for Firefox in the Web-based Android Market and give it a quick install. Easy peasy.

Firefox seems quite speedy on Android. I don’t have any metrics to compare it to Android’s browser, but it feels faster than Android’s native browser. It renders pages beautifully, quickly, and I haven’t run into any pages (so far) that are horribly broken. The only rendering complaint I have is that there’s no way to get the Xkcd tooltip on the mobile browser. Bummer.

The big trick that Firefox has up its sleeve, though, is add-ons. Like its big brother on the desktop, Firefox on Android supports extensions that add spiffy new features. The selection isn’t quite as large as the desktop version of Firefox, but it’s a good beginning. And you’ll find extensions that do things no desktop extension will help with. For instance, there’s the “whereismycar” add-on, which — as you’d probably guessed by the name — helps locate your car. I haven’t given this one a workout yet, but if it’s true to its word I may become a lifelong convert to Firefox Mobile.

Not As Good

Two things stuck out as problematic for me with Firefox on Android. Both are fixable, but worth mentioning.

The first is that the UI is non-intuitive in some ways. Specifically, swiping to get the tabs to display on the left-hand, and to get the navigation on the right side. If there’s a start-up tutorial or something, I missed it. Firefox Mobile definitely needs a “first-run” routine that shows users how to work with the mobile UI.

The other thing is that Firefox Mobile is recognized by many of the sites I tried as a desktop browser. The standard version of sites displays well in Firefox Mobile, but performance is not as good as the mobile sites — not to mention they’re just tiny in FfA. I suspect that this will be fixed at some point. Of course, I don’t plan to spend all of my time browsing the Web using Android or a smartphone in general, so if it’s not fixed it won’t be the end of the world.

I wanted to benchmark Firefox Mobile against the Android browser, but kept running into warnings about unresponsive scripts when trying to use the V8 benchmark.

Challenges

I think Mozilla has some substantial challenges on the mobile front. The campaigns that helped inspire people to install Firefox won’t translate well to the mobile Web, for one thing.

Firefox did well on the desktop because it was one hell of a lot better than Internet Explorer. Still is, in my opinion. But it matters a lot more on the desktop. I use my browser on the phone a few times a day, at most. I stare at a desktop browser all freaking day. Well, intermittently through the day, anyway. Point being — I’m less motivated to search out alternative browsers on Android than on the desktop. It took a long time to convince more than 20% of desktop users to switch to Firefox. How long will it take for Firefox to reach 20% on Android?

Unfortunately, I don’t have an Android tablet that I can test Firefox on. I’d like to see how well it performs and how it looks on an Android tablet, because I suspect it might be something that would help give the iPad a run for its money.

Despite the challenges, Firefox Mobile has a lot going for it. It’s coming along nicely and offers Android users a lot of features that they don’t get from the stock browser or alternative browsers on Android. If you’re using Android, give it a shot — I think you’ll like it.

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