Mozilla's Fire For Smart Phones

Mozilla in Mobile
The Firefox browser, a force in PCs, is nowhere in smartphones.

The Mozilla project was born in 1998 with the mission to provide an open, customizable counterweight to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which accounted for more than 90 percent of the browser market at the time. Today, Firefox, an open-source project led by the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation in Mountain View, California., with millions of contributors around the world, has nearly a quarter of the market. Many of the features it pioneered—such as pop-up blocking and virus protection—are commonplace. Mozilla’s original goal of spurring competition and innovation seems to have been met.

Yet for all its success in the desktop browser market, Mozilla is nearly absent from today’s biggest growth opportunity: mobile. It has yet to develop an app for the iPhone. Its free Firefox browser for Android smartphones has been downloaded 5.4 million times, a modest number compared with the roughly 200 million Android devices now in use. All told, Mozilla’s mobile browser has less than 1 percent of the market, according to Net Applications, which tracks browser market share. “As of today there’s no compelling reason to use Mozilla” on a smartphone, says Net Applications marketing.

Unlike on the desktop, where any user can download any piece of software, in the mobile world the handset makers act as gatekeepers. John Lilly, a former Mozilla CEO says that Apple, for instance, will likely never approve a full-powered Firefox browser because third-party apps aren’t allowed to execute Web programming code such as JavaScript. Google’s Android has looser rules, but Mozilla got a late start in developing a browser for that platform because Google didn’t immediately release the source code Mozilla needed. Neither Google nor Apple responded to repeated requests for comment.

A year ago, Mozilla’s mobile team was a separate division with fewer than 20 engineers. In July, it made mobile a priority for the full 250-person engineering team. They’re on a “massive hiring spree” for mobile designers and developers. The team is focusing its efforts on the larger, more open Android platform, and in September the company switched to the Java programming language used to build Android applications.

Mozilla plans to release a new Android mobile app by early next year. “We’re not going to advance the Web by telling hundreds of millions of people to take their medicine and use a subpar browser,” says Johnathan Nightingale, Mozilla’s head of engineering. Mozilla is negotiating with handset manufacturers to make Firefox a default browser on certain phones,and hopes to announce a deal by February 2012.
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On iPhones, users can only run the privacy software that Apple approves, and Google’s Chrome browser tends to prioritize speed over privacy.Mozilla has a list of mobile issues that it can hopefully, influence, including creating new standards for e-books so a novel bought on an Amazon Kindle also works in Apple’s iBooks tablet application.The reasons Mozilla faces challenges is because Apple, Google, and Microsoft have started making much better desktop and mobile browsers, occasionally borrowing from Firefox.

The bottom line: Mozilla, with under 1 percent of the mobile browser market, is hiring more smartphone developers and building a new Android browser.


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