Mobile Firefox out to break industry hold on device apps

Free mobile browser depends on carriers, handset makers, stepping aside.

By developing a version of its open source desktop Firefox Web browser to run on mobile devices, Mozilla hopes to break the hold some handset makers and carriers have on what mobile applications consumers can use, an executive of the company says.

"People don't want restrictions or differences between what their mobile device can do and what their laptop can do," said Mike Schroepfer, Mozilla's vice president of engineering, in a Network World interview following his widely reported blog posting of Mozilla's plans to introduce Firefox Mobile, possibly later next year.

"Part of our mission is ... to make sure consumers have their choice of applications and devices and aren't restricted by choices from the carriers or the device manufacturers," Schroepfer said.

Largely by word-of-mouth, 120 million computer users worldwide chose to download the free open source-based Firefox onto their desktop and laptop computers since it was introduced in 2004.

The Mozilla Foundation is a nonprofit organization that supports the Mozilla open source community while Mozilla, a for-profit subsidiary of the foundation, markets Mozilla products such as Firefox and the recently-introduced Thunderbird e-mail application.

Traditionally in the US, wireless carriers dictate to handset makers the specifications and features of phones they will support on their network. Also, Apple recently faced criticism for limitations it places on customer use of its iPhone devices. Apple only allows third party applications to run on iPhones through its Safari Web browser and does not support apps installed directly on the device. And after learning some users were able to unlock their iPhones and use them on a network other Apple's chosen AT&T, Apple issued a software upgrade that disabled those iPhones.

"I would have difficulty giving you examples, historically, in technology battles, where closed solutions won over open solutions in the long run," said Schroepfer.

Mozilla has recently stepped up efforts to develop Firefox Mobile, he said, but it won't be available before the release of Firefox 3, a beta version of which is due later this year with a final version expected in the first half of 2008.

The catalyst for Mobile Firefox is the move to mobile devices for Web access, Schroepfer says, citing industry statistics that mobile devices outsell personal computers worldwide by a margin of 20-to-1.

Also, handheld devices are improving to offer a richer browsing experience. He cited the iPhone, with 128MB of RAM and up to a 600MHz processor, and the Nokia N800, a handheld offering Web access and e-mail that also features 128MB of RAM, as both "reasonably capable" of offering a decent browsing experience.

He expects that the sophistication of mobile devices will improve steadily in the next few years to offer the same performance as a laptop or desktop computer.

But here's the point, Schroepfer said: Nokia ported the Firefox browser to its N800 on its own. Mozilla knew about it and offered some advice, "but they did it mostly on their own."

"That's the beauty of open source," he said. "They don't need to sign a contract or break out the lawyers. They can just grab the code and do what they want."

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Robert Mullins

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