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First look: Mozilla's mobile Fennec browser

By Nathan Willis on October 22, 2008 (7:00:00 PM)

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Mozilla released the first workable alpha version of its new Fennec mobile browser last week, showcasing a new interface optimized for small-screen devices. Despite the slimmed-down look, however, Fennec makes use of the same Mozilla technologies under the hood that are well-known in Firefox. In my testing on my own handheld device, I found Fennec an enticing browser with a well-thought-out interface.

The Fennec project is neither the first nor the only Mozilla-derived browser built for mobile devices. Nokia maintains the MicroB browser for its Maemo platform Internet tablets, and a now-defunct project called Minimo was once developed for Windows Mobile phones. But Fennec is different in that it is an official Mozilla project, and it incorporates more than just the Gecko rendering engine. Fennec will support standard pieces of the Firefox experience like JavaScript, XUL, plugins and extensions, and even recent additions like Awesomebar.

You can grab the first usable release from the Fennec project site on Mozilla Labs. A Web-installable build for Maemo tablets is provided, as are builds for Mac OS X, Windows, and desktop Linux. The release notes indicate that the Maemo build is targeted at the N810 line of tablets, which feature a hardware keyboard, but I did not have any trouble installing or running the package on an N800.

Interface, not in your face

Perhaps the most innovative feature of Fennec is its user interface, which attempts to maximize the amount of screen real estate devoted to page rendering. It does so with context-sensitive UI elements and off-screen controls that you access with gestures.

The browser's start page shows first-time users what to do -- slide left to reveal the toolbar that rests just out of sight on one side; slide right to reveal the tab bar, which sports page thumbnails instead of text titles. The location bar at the top of the window is minimalist, sporting only a favicon, reload button, and bookmarks button.

In addition to the side-accessible toolbars, Fennec attempts to make getting to the desired URL as fast as possible by incorporating URL completion and search into the text entry. URL completion works much like it does in Firefox 3's Awesomebar, bringing up a list of matches on both address and page title, and adjusting the list as you type. For faster search, start typing your search terms in the location bar, then click on one of the search buttons at the bottom of the pop-up window.

I shall call him Mini Fox

A Fennec, in case you were wondering, is a pocket-sized species of fox native to northern Africa. Like its namesake, the Fennec browser is a miniaturized version of Firefox, not a stripped-down, lightweight alternative.

Consequently, it includes features not commonplace on the mobile browsers found on many phones, such as Firefox's management of downloads, cookies, passwords, and certificates, full support for AJAX Web pages, and tabbed browsing. It also includes support for extensions, plugins, and themes, and integrates with Mozilla's online services such as update notifications and Weave online bookmarking and personalization.

But the project's vision statement also includes mobile-friendly ideas not found in desktop Firefox, such as geolocation, initiation of phone calls from within Web pages, and integration with PIM services on the device.

Performance

In my tests, Fennec is -- not surprisingly -- slower than MicroB on the N800 tablet. Some N800 users reported problems using the device's software keyboard, but I did not have trouble.

As for Fennec's user interface, the hidden tool and tab bars are easy to get used to, but I found it all too easy to accidentally slide them into view while scrolling a page up and down with the stylus. If you use an N810 device with a keyboard, you may be able to scroll with hardware keys, avoiding the issue, but with a touchscreen device that is unlikely to be the preferred way of navigating.

On a side note, it took me a few pages to realize that Fennec recoups some screen space by eliminating the traditional scroll bar altogether. I don't know if the space savings are worth it, considering that without a scroll bar you lose the ability to tell where on the page you are.

The rest of the interface is slick. I found the location bar autocompletion and search fast and unobtrusive, and liked the thumbnail view of the tab bar. There are no themes or other add-ons for Fennec yet, but since it employs the same APIs as Firefox, they are sure to follow.

It is good to see Mozilla putting significant resources and effort into the mobile space. Mozilla changed the desktop browser marketplace; I hope its influence on mobile browsing will be even bigger.

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on First look: Mozilla's mobile Fennec browser

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First look: Mozilla's mobile Fennec browser

Posted by: Benjamin Huot on October 22, 2008 07:23 PM
Why isn't there an iPhone version?

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Re: First look: Mozilla's mobile Fennec browser

Posted by: Nathan Willis on October 22, 2008 07:31 PM
Come on. You already know the answer -- because Fennec is free software.

Nate

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Re(1): First look: Mozilla's mobile Fennec browser

Posted by: Benjamin Huot on October 23, 2008 12:30 AM
I run free software on my Mac all the time. Where in the license does it say you cannot install software just because it is Open Source?

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Re(2): First look: Mozilla's mobile Fennec browser

Posted by: Nathan Willis on October 23, 2008 02:51 AM
It has nothing to do with your Mac. Your Mac is not an iPhone. Apps can only run on the iPhone if they are developed by people who have agreed to the terms of Apple's developer program and NDA, and then they can only be distributed by Apple in the iPhone App Store, and then only those applications that Apple agrees to distribute. Plus, specifically as it relates to a Web browser: Apple will not approve an application if it "duplicates the functionality" of one of Apple's own applications, such as the mobile version of Safari.

Nate

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Re(3): First look: Mozilla's mobile Fennec browser

Posted by: Benjamin Huot on October 23, 2008 03:20 PM
I realize that, but the claim was that it wasn't allowed because it was open source which is pure FUD. If I remember correctly, the only thing that could keep something like Fennec from being allowed is if it was able to run programs on it via Javascript. They could take out the Javascript capabilities and then it should be allowed.

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Re(4): First look: Mozilla's mobile Fennec browser

Posted by: Nathan Willis on October 23, 2008 03:57 PM
No, we've covered this issue several times in the past. I'd recommend that you read http://www.linux.com/feature/131752 and http://www.linux.com/feature/149483 for a more complete examination of all the conflicts. As for whether Fennec "should be allowed" -- yes, I think we all agree that Apple should change its policies and (among other changes) allow third-party Web browsers, media players, and apps that are "similar" to iPhone's default apps. But they don't. Look, here's the bottom line: regardless of whether you like it or not, Apple decides what runs on the iPhone. Apple and Apple alone. Mozilla does not.

Nate

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Re: First look: Mozilla's mobile Fennec browser

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 201.208.218.158] on October 22, 2008 08:21 PM
Ask your apple overlords why their SDK license does not allow development of things like Fennec

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Re(1): First look: Mozilla's mobile Fennec browser

Posted by: Benjamin Huot on October 23, 2008 12:28 AM
I don't worship Apple anymore than Open Source users worship Linus. Also, I do not have nor will I likely ever own an iPhone. I do however have a Mac and a Linux PC and have been using Linux on the desktop since 1999.

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Re: First look: Mozilla's mobile Fennec browser

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.58.73.95] on October 23, 2008 02:13 AM
The iPhone SDK license prohibits software like Fennec, which would execute code (JavaScript)

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First look: Mozilla's mobile Fennec browser

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 68.118.116.194] on October 22, 2008 07:43 PM
Minimo has been ported to the N800. I find it to work better than Fennec, although it is not as feature-filled.
http://maemo.org/downloads/product/OS2007/minimo/


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First look: Mozilla's mobile Fennec browser

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 12.86.155.70] on October 22, 2008 08:59 PM
The Minimo had to run on the brain (or interface) damaged windows mobile which does not have a touch screen as an option.

I downloaded a version that was laying around and it installed on my t-mobile but hung up w/o any info to figure out why.

the Mozilla people have a huge amount of work to support all the variations that are out there in the way of screens, keyboards and scrolling / mouse devices if they want to support a lot of platforms.

I agree is it nice to get something that is open source and portable across platforms out there though, I just hope that the way it is designed allows some of the weird things that one encounters on some mobile platforms.

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First look: Mozilla's mobile Fennec browser

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.117.42.171] on October 23, 2008 12:08 AM
I down loaded this to my Nokia N800 last week and tried it out. "Stripped down" is a description based on your perspective. The executable weighing in at some 26 Megabytes is "not exactly" lightweight on a platform with 256 Megs of FLASH space. (The Xulrunner library required by Fennec is 25 Megs of this.) Loading Fennec takes ~50 Secs. A Slashdot home page load takes like another minute. Trying to scroll is painful, and subject to the tabs issue Nathan mentions, as well as jumping to undesired link following.

But hey, it's Alpha software. I look forward to actually being able to use this on my Nokia.

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First look: Mozilla's mobile Fennec browser

Posted by: Benjamin Huot on October 23, 2008 04:28 PM
I tried to post this as a reply to your comments, but my comments never appeared on the site until I posted it below. I hope this post doesn't appear more than once, because I had to submit it several times to et it to go through. Thanks for the links. I haven't been following Linux.com until recently. I guess I felt it unfair that Mozilla was ported to Windows Mobile and not to the iPhone. As far as Apple controlling the iPhone, I *don't* think Apple means to make it hard to impossible to run open source software on the iPhone, but rather want to avoid the malware problem Windows has. They have also recently changed their NDA so developers can now talk about completed features. I feel many open source projects have a double standard in that they use Microsoft technologies and software and yet are very negative about Apple. I know that Apple has more visible barriers, but Apple doesn't try to deceive others about its licenses or sabotage their ability to work well with their software.
[Modified by: Benjamin Huot on October 23, 2008 04:30 PM]

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