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Firefox Goes Mobile

Mozilla’s chairman explains why mobile devices need an open-source browser.

There’s no doubt that it’s getting easier to access the Web on a mobile device. Thanks to the iPhone and Apple’s Web browser, Safari, millions of people feel as though they finally have the Internet in their pocket. But there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in order to allow for the kind of innovation on the mobile Web that is possible on the traditional Web, says Mitchell Baker, chairman of Mozilla, maker of the Firefox browser.

Firefox for phones: Mitchell Baker is the chairman of the Mozilla Foundation, an open-source software organization responsible for the Firefox browser. The foundation is building a browser for mobile devices.

Baker has been instrumental in building the open-source software community that gave the world Firefox, a popular alternative to desktop browsers such as Internet Explorer and Safari. But now Mozilla has turned its attention to the mobile Web. Last October, the foundation announced an initiative to build the first, fully open Web browser for mobile devices. As an open-source software project, the browser will be built using code from software programmers from all over the world. The hope is to spur innovation in an industry that’s famous for locking out software developers.

Technology Review’s information technology editor, Kate Greene, caught up with Baker at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco last week to ask about her vision of the mobile Web.

Technology Review: What progress have you made since you announced a mobile Firefox initiative last fall?

Mitchell Baker: The first thing that we have done is make sure that the size and memory requirement of our code are more suitable for cell phones and related devices. We hadn’t actually focused on that in the past years. We focused on building the user experience, and the [software developer] ecosystem, and making a browser that’s flexible. So the performance characteristics of the code that runs Firefox are dramatically different than they were six months ago. They are equal to any mobile browser, and better than some, depending on the tests. We’ve done a lot of the hard basic engineering work that needs to get done.

We’ve also started the prototype development. There’s a project called Fennec, which is another type of fox. We’ve released prototypes of this, not products. This is the classic Mozilla way of development: release early and release often.

TR: When do you expect a mobile Firefox to be available to the general public?

MB: We can expect to see things that the general public can play with sometime this year. I’m not sure it’ll be a completely polished product, but it’ll be within a range that’s usable.

TR: Why does a mobile Firefox matter? There are plenty of other browsers out there, including Safari, that have done wonders for the mobile Web.

MB: Safari makes it clear that you can have a browser on a phone and that you can see the Web on a phone. Good for Apple. The iPhone is a phenomenal tool for demonstrating the promise of the kinds of things we can have. Safari and the iPhone also demonstrate the closed nature of the Apple world and the limitations of the closed, vending-machine kind of approach. With Safari, you get Safari; you don’t get the extensions or the compatibility. You don’t get a range of things, and under their licensing terms it’s illegal to try to change that.

What Firefox brings is the opportunity for choice for consumers, innovation for developers, businesses for developers, and the kind of explosion of possibilities like what we’ve seen in the Web in the last few years. So yes, there are other browsers out there. They’re all closed, not open.

TR: What sorts of innovations do you expect to see with a mobile Firefox? What sort of crazy ideas are people floating out there that you know about?

MB: There’s a convenience feature that mobile devices demand that we’re currently living without even on the desktop. That will happen before we can even get into the crazy ideas I think we’ll see … It shouldn’t take me five times to find a site I’ve been to before. It should be easy. We actually know how to make it easy in Firefox, and it’s really useful. I think the first thing we’ll see is just convenience features driven by the constraints of the device, making their way back to the desktop.

TR: The mobile industry is such a challenging place to play because carriers and device makers, for the most part, keep outside developers from changing or adding unauthorized software. How will Mozilla deal with this?

MB: I think the hardware manufacturers are increasingly interested in providing the experience that people want. The harder part, of course, is [dealing with] the carriers. Sometimes I think we forget that the world is not all like it is in the U.S. There are parts of the world that are much more open than we are now. I’m not convinced the U.S. is going to lead [in mobile innovation], and when we travel, we’ll be shocked at what’s actually possible.

But I think the overall environment will change, and that either cracks will appear or there will be a place to demonstrate what’s really possible. Those demonstrations are more powerful than people think, even if they’re small. If you actually show consumers what’s possible, then you start to build an understanding and a demand.

TR: What do you expect your cell phone to look and feel like in three years?

MB: I’m not sure I’m going to think of it as a phone. Sometimes being able to talk to someone voice to voice is what I want. Other times it’s really not. A device that I carry with me will be a device that’s not just a cell phone with other stuff attached to it. I want it to be pretty flexible.

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