Home Fennec Reaches Beta – How is Mozilla’s Mobile Web Browser Shaping Up?

Fennec Reaches Beta – How is Mozilla’s Mobile Web Browser Shaping Up?

In yesterday’s post about my recent trip to Mozilla HQ, we looked at where Mozilla’s Chief Innovation Officer, Chris Beard, thinks Firefox is heading. Mozilla’s vision for Firefox is for the browser to help users navigate and manage an increasingly complex world – something akin to the concept of intelligent agents. Part of this vision is to enable users to easily and effectively browse the web on their mobile devices.

This is where Fennec, Mozilla’s new mobile browser, comes in. In this post we look at Fennec’s progress (it recently delivered its first beta) and Chris Beard gives us his thoughts on Fennec’s strategy.

From Prototype to Beta

We’ve been tracking the progress of Fennec since its first prototype in April 2008, to the launch of the pre-alpha version in February this year, and the recent launch of the first beta in mid-March. The first extension for Fennec also arrived on the scene in November 2008 – URL Fixer, an add-on that corrects typos in the address bar. The development of Fennec hasn’t been without its problems – we reported on some glaring bugs soon after the pre-alpha launch. However the release of the beta this month shows that solid progress is being made.

How Fennec Aims to Get Users

Fennec aims to bring the Firefox browsing experience to the mobile phone, including the ecosystem of add-ons that are probably the biggest reason for using Firefox on the PC. However one immediate problem that Fennec is going to face is actually getting on mobile devices in the first place. For example Apple’s Safari browser is the default browser on the iPhone and most users of the iPhone are more than happy with the default. So is Mozilla actively working to make Fennec a default browser on other devices? Beard said that, yes, Mozilla is looking for OEM deals with the likes of Nokia, Windows Mobile and Symbian. As of now, Fennec is only available on the Nokia N810.

However, even without those deals, Beard said that one big advantage of Fennec is that it’s easy to install. He said that Fennec aims to bring the “the full Web” experience to the mobile platform, including Firefox’s famed add-on platform. So Fennec isn’t supposed to be a mini or micro version of the Web for mobile. Beard said that Mozilla is anticipating the increase in power of mobile devices, so they think the full web experience is within reach on mobile. For example, he mentioned getting the “Awesome bar” into mobile (the feature where you start to type in URLs in the browser bar and Firefox auto-completes them).

The User Experience

Although Fennec aims to duplicate much of Firefox’s functionality, it has to do some things differently. For example instead of using your mouse to navigate, in Fennec you can have touchscreen interaction – or cursor keys for non-touchscreen handsets. For more on the UI, check out Fennec in action in this screencast by Madhava Enros, the lead user interface designer for Fennec:

Fennec is still in beta and only available on Nokia N810 right now, but there are other developments happening in Mozilla which lead us to believe that Fennec is being positioned as a key complement to Firefox. For example Mozilla’s sync app Weave, which we will discuss more of in the next post in this series, now has an extension for Fennec that allows you to sync data from your desktop to Fennec. This ability to sync data between devices could ultimately prove to be a killer feature for Fennec. Update: a commenter pointed out that Opera already does sync. While this is true, the fact is that Firefox has a much larger percentage of the browser market. So the potential impact of syncing between Firefox and Fennec is much greater than for Opera.

The Competition

But despite its sync and add-ons, Fennec faces some stiff competition in the mobile web browser market. Other than Safari on the market-leading (for mobile web in the US at least) iPhone, Opera has consistently been an innovator on mobile phones and it was one of our top 10 Mobile Web products of 2008. Opera’s mobile browser is already being shipped on millions of handsets from major mobile manufacturers including HTC, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, T-Mobile, and more. Opera is also available for different types of mobile operating systems like Symbian, Windows Mobile, Blackberry, and Linux, making it the alternative browser of choice for many handset owners.

We also rather likeSkyfire, a relatively new entrant to the mobile browser market which has already gained many fans. Let’s not forget too that Google Chrome is already present on Android phones.

So it’s going to be very tough for Fennec, even with the reputation and functionality of Firefox behind it, to make headway in this competitive market. Now let us know in the comments which mobile browser you currently use – and why.

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