In an era when tech companies are attempting to squeeze more data and more dollars out of users, it is refreshing to know that there are organizations that aim to make the Web a better, more functional place. Mozilla is one. Today it unveils the latest version of Firefox for Android. While the browser is an excellent update, the most interesting thing about it is what it says about the future of the mobile Web.

Fast, Functional, Secure

To many mobile users, a browser is a browser is a browser. As long as it works, they do not really care what's under the hood. Yet not all browsers are created equal, especially on mobile. Some browsers render mobile websites better, some can sync data from a desktop browser, some specialize in privacy. When it comes to performance and function, no one mobile browser is perfect. 

The new Firefox for Android is a big step up from earlier versions, which were functional but did not always offer a terrific user experience. They lagged and could be generally frustrating. Speed wins on the Web, and Firefox for Android has not always kept up with the competition.

That changes with the new version. It is remarkably fast. It renders the mobile Web extremely well and “snaps” to websites without a significant amount of load time. Users tend to notice when a browser is extraordinarily responsive, and Firefox delivers this time around on Android. When Mozilla says it likes to “move at the speed of the Web,” the statement is not hyperbole this time. 

Several other browsers like to tout speed as well. Opera and Dolphin are the next closest competitors to Mozilla in the third-party Android browser race, and both offer decent features and adequate speed. Yet none really stands out. For the time being, Firefox for Android is the king of speed. 

When it comes to functionality, Mozilla has added features that align Firefox with other Android browsers. The upgrade offers Flash support, a personalized start page, the Awesome Screen (which shows you a list of your bookmarks and history when you type in the URL bar) and Firefox Sync, a feature that connects data between desktop and mobile Firefox browsers. The ability to sync desktop and mobile browsers is something that Google does very well with its Chrome Beta for Android, and it provides a seamless user experience between platforms. 

Mozilla is also committed to protecting users’ data. Firefox for Android is one of the first mobile browsers to add a “do not track” option to shield users from behavioral tracking used for advertising. Mozilla also offers a “master password” feature that protects usernames and login credentials that you save in Firefox. When you save your master password, you will be prompted to enter it before signing into a site where you have stored passwords. Firefox for Android also provides more granular controls such as the ability to enable or disable cookies, clear private history or send performance data back to Mozilla.

HTML5: Taking the Next Step

Firefox for Android, as a stand-alone entity, is a decent addition to the third-party Android browser ecosystem. But features, speed and security only tell a portion of the story.

Mozilla is creating its own browser-based mobile operating system that could eventually compete with Android, iOS, BlackBerry and Windows Phone on the smartphone market. The project, called Boot2Gecko (B2G), is an attempt to create an OS that is free and open, and push the technological standards of the mobile Web. 

It is still very much a work in progress. Mozilla's priorities for B2G can be seen directly in what the company has released in the latest Firefox for Android. Many of the capabilities for B2G are being developed in concert with Android. The idea is to make a browser-based operating system act like the native environments in iOS and Android. This is no easy feat. 

“One of the great things about building on a shared engine across platforms (like Gecko) is that a lot of the performance optimization on one platform immediately benefits another. So what we are doing on Firefox for Android contributes to our work on Boot2Gecko, and vice versa,” said Jonathan Nightingale, director of Firefox engineering. 

The difference between the mobile Web and native environments is that the Web (accessed through browsers like Firefox) lacks device-specific functionality. Mobile browsers cannot historically perform functions like accessing a smartphone’s camera, orientation settings, geo-location features or even things that seem simple and common to users like vibration, contacts or audio and video playback. To create a true mobile OS, these problems need to be tackled. Mozilla is spearheading development of these capabilities through Web technologies like HTML5, CSS, WebGL, Canvas and others.

“As the advocate for the Web, Mozilla helps build new Web APIs and submits them to standards groups to move the Web forward as a platform," Nightingale said. "Among the standards that Mozilla helped build are Camera API, Vibration API, Mobile Connection API, Battery Status API, Screen Orientation API and Geolocation API. Firefox for Android also has the latest HTML5 technologies enabled, including WebSockets, Canvas, Web workers, localStorage, CSS3, HTML5 audio." 

Mozilla’s primary avenue for creating new device functions for HTML5 is called WebAPIs. These are application programming interfaces - that is, sets of commands that let programmers control specific functions - that connect the browser to a smartphone or tablet and can do things that a browser could not do on its own. The APIs will directly inform what makes B2G a functional platform, and many of them can already be found in Firefox for Android.

When will we start seeing Firefox B2G smartphones on the market? Probably within the next year or so. Mozilla has been in talks with manufacturers and mobile carriers. Nightingale promised to keep us posted.

As for bringing Firefox to other mobile platforms, Mozilla does not have plans for an iOS, Windows Phone or BlackBerry version of the browser. It is developing a browser for Windows Metro that will run on Windows 8. 

Performance Tests

But, try as it might, Firefox for Android does not lead the HTML5 pack. In a variety of tests, the new version trails Apple’s mobile Safari and Google’s Chrome for Android Beta in HTML5 functionality. Ringmark, an open source HTML5 testing tool developed by Facebook, shows that Firefox for Android still needs work on some of the lower levels of HTML5 development. See our coverage of Ringmark here for a fuller picture of how the tool works. In a standard test, Firefox for Android could not get out of “Ring 0” as it failed on one function out of 97. If a browser fails one test in a particular ring, Ringmark will not test the next ring. Chrome Beta and mobile Safari both pass Ring 0. 

For a more detailed test, we ran the new Firefox for Android through the evaluation site html5test.com. The site checks the specific HTML5 functions of any browser that visits and scores it from 0 to 500. The highest a mobile browser we have tested has performed on the site was 371 (Chrome Beta). Mobile Safari comes in at a 324 while Firefox for Android trails at 311. Each browser shows particular strengths on the testing site. Firefox for Android performed particularly well in the Web application department. 

Mozilla is positioning itself to be a leader in innovation on the mobile Web. It will take a bit of time to tackle all the problems, but Mozilla’s motivations are sincere: a better Web that benefits everybody that uses it. As the Web becomes more mobile, that means that a lot of work needs to be done to optimize the experience. Mozilla has taken the first steps.