Today I’d like to tell you about Firefox Mobile on the N900, running in conjunction with the new Mozilla Weave web service. I’ve been testing them out on my handset for about a month now since the beta release of Fennec (the codename for Firefox Mobile). The N900 is the first device to get Firefox Mobile but it should also appear on Google Android phones in the near future. There is talk from Mozilla of an iPhone version too, but Apple are so draconian with 3rd party software I’m not sure that’ll happen. I just can’t see them allowing another browser on the iPhone to compete with Safari. (correction: According to Fab the iPhone has allowed some 3rd party browsers already, see link in comments) Anyway, here’s my thoughts upon testing Firefox Mobile for some time.
Facing The Critics:
It seems fashionable with some people to bash Firefox right now and use it as the butt of their jokes. I think many of them are too quick to forget the great work Mozilla have done for us in spreading Open Source software to the masses. Many users get their first exposure to the wonderful world of FOSS through the likes of OpenOffice.org and Firefox. Sure it’s not perfect, it has it’s bugs and it can be slow at times too. But I think the emergence of real competitors like Google Chrome has and will continue to improve Open Source browsers in general. I like Chromium but Firefox is still the browser of choice on my desktop. Weave is also an interesting prospect and I’ll talk more about that in a minute. I was curious to see if I would like this new compact Firefox quite as much as I like it’s big brother.
I mentioned Mozilla Weave earlier, it’s a new web service designed to make syncing your browsing history, bookmarks, tabs, form data and even passwords easy over multiple installations of Firefox. Imagine you have Firefox installed on a few different computers around the house, a laptop and a desktop perhaps. Having them synced up and sharing data means you’re always up to date whichever machine you’re on. There have long been extensions to share bookmarks but this takes it to a whole new level. Add in the fact that Firefox Mobile supports this on your phone and it becomes a much more interesting prospect. Wherever I happen to be a quick click on my phone brings up all the tabs I have open on my laptop. This is all achieved by syncing the data to a remote Mozilla web server and then sharing it between devices. You have to sign up for an account with Weave which is free, but a lot of people will have serious security concerns about it. According to Mozilla the data is all encrypted locally before it’s sent to their server, so even they can’t access it without your permission. I still don’t trust it with precious things like passwords and form data though, perhaps I’m paranoid. I use Weave to sync browsing history, bookmarks and tabs. It’s very easy to change these settings and it doesn’t share your passwords by default, which is a good thing I think. It’ll be interesting to see if it takes off as the browser spreads to more devices.
Obviously mobile devices have much less screen real estate for developers to use and the last thing you want is to have your page blocked out by copious toolbars, “tool” being the operative term in that sentence. The N900 has a pretty respectable 800×480 screen resolution but I’m still pleased to see the Mozilla guys have thought about using it wisely. They’ve done this by hiding extra controls to the left and right of the main display area. You can expose them by dragging the page left or right with you finger. To the right you have forward & back buttons, a “bookmark this page” shortcut and access to the app settings.
To the left you have tabs and access to Weave integration. I have to admit I was dubious about this interface design at first and I didn’t think dragging the whole page to the side would work. It actually becomes second nature pretty quickly and the ability to have multiple pages open in tabs is very cool. I also like the fact that the “awesome” bar works the same as its desktop counterpart. If you start typing part of an address you’ve visited before it will narrow down helpful suggestions. This actually speeds up browsing a lot and in my laziness I use this feature far more than bookmarks. Having it integrated with your other Firefox installations through Weave makes this much more powerful too. Firefox Mobile helps you fill out forms quicker and jump between fields which is handy. Overall the adapted UI works well, despite my initial reservations I got used to it very quickly.
This is the area where most people have issues with Firefox and on a mobile device your patience tends to be even shorter. I have two browsers on the N900 right now: Micro B which is the official Maemo browser, and Firefox Mobile. There’s no doubt that Firefox takes longer to start up and performance is generally slower. The really odd thing about this is that both browsers are Mozilla based so they should be similar. I don’t know what they did to speed it up Micro B but they need to pass that knowledge back so Firefox can be improved. If only Firefox was under the GPL they’d have to pass it back (edit: Possibly not, see comments), but that’s another matter. In fairness the final 1.0 release saw a speed improvement over the beta and RC. Once the browser is loaded it runs quickly enough but does occasionally bog down and crash. I can hear the Firefox haters laughing in the distance. It still needs a little work in this department I feel.
Extensions, But No Flash:
Unlike Micro B I don’t seem to have support for Flash in Firefox Mobile. This may be because Micro B comes pre-tweaked as part of the OS, I don’t know. I have my issues with Flash but I do still find support for it important in browsers. Hopefully that will change as HTML5 takes off, but right now I still want Flash support sorry. I tend to switch to Micro B to use YouTube and other sites. Mozilla don’t want to distribute proprietary software and this is probably the main reason Flash isn’t pre-configured, a position I respect. It’s also possible that I could install it myself with a little hacking. Trying to do that automatically in the browser or via a .deb package didn’t work though. On a positive note you do have access to extensions in Firefox Mobile, which many people have become used to on the desktop. I have a few installed and the selection is growing all the time, right now the main one for me is Weave, I don’t use a lot else.
I enjoy using Firefox Mobile, particularly in conjunction with Weave and I think there’s much to commend about it. However, I’m afraid the overall impression it leaves is of performance problems which still need to be fixed. Slowness and random crashes are not something most users will put up with, especially on mobile devices. I use Micro B a lot more on the N900 because it’s quicker and more stable. There are some interesting features in Firefox Mobile and I do think it has great potential for the future, it’s only just come out of beta so I don’t want to be too harsh. How it will fare on other platforms like Android I’m not sure. The N900 has pretty quick hardware and I shudder to think how slow it might be on a G1 or other handset.
At the moment the browser situation on the N900 is similar to the one I see on my desktop, and at the same time completely different. Bear with me I haven’t lost my mind. It’s great to have a choice of browsers and competition is always good. On the desktop I use Firefox 80% of the time and Chromium the other 20%. On the mobile though it’s Micro B 80% of the time and Firefox 20%. Once the performance improves and I fix flash support that balance may shift. For now though my verdict on Firefox Mobile 1.0 is nice try, I really like the potential, but come back when it’s a bit more polished.
You can download Firefox Mobile here.
Also check out the full slideshow for more pics.