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Mozilla: Firefox for Android is faster, lighter, more dynamic [Interviews]

March 23, 2011 | by Andrew Kameka

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The road from Fennec to Firefox Android has been an adventurous one. Mozilla released an alpha of its Firefox mobile browser several months before it felt confident enough to test the waters of the Android Market. After some feedback about the app’s large size and unique features, Firefox for Android has a release candidate that is the strongest version yet. But with the official version of Firefox set to land in the Android Market within a few weeks, is the best yet good enough? met with Thomas Arend, Principal Product Manager for at Mozilla Mobile, to discuss the new features and challenges facing Firefox for Android. The common theme of Arend’s statements was that Firefox aims to provide a unique experience for mobile devices without sacrificing the power that users love on the desktop. The same Gecko technology powers both formats, and the sync function enables integration between Firefox on your phone, tablet, and desktop experiences. All forms communicate with each other and share information, making your history, bookmarks, and even open windows available.

Of course, many of you already know that Firefox is great. The problem is all of that greatness is difficult to manage in terms of size and speed. Arend addressed those and other concerns in our talk, so here are some highlights that may be of interest to Android users looking to spend time with Firefox Mobile.

On Firefox’s large install size…

Mozilla is always working to narrow the size of Firefox for Android. Arend notes that the app is currently 13 MB, down from the initial 43 MB seen when the Fennec alpha was released. Firefox is smaller than most popular games like Angry Birds and provides a lot of features that make it difficult to slim things too much. Arend says that his team is constantly working to make the app take up less storage space, but cannot promise how much smaller it can get. For now, don’t forget that Firefox supports Apps2SD on Froyo phones.

On browser speed…

Mozilla recently claimed to be 3x faster than the stock Android browser, and that claim just didn’t pass the smell test once the app was in the hands of users. The Firefox version released into the Android Market this week is indeed much faster than previous versions, most noticeably in the faster launch time. The “Loading” screen that previously took as much as 7-10 seconds has dropped down to 1-2 seconds. [Ed note: I'd still love to see that time decrease]

As for the 3x faster claim, that’s thanks to Firefox’s JavaScript processing capability. “The real power comes out of the fast JavaScript engine,” Arend said. “If you’ve got a page that uses heavy JavaScript, you’ll see a clear difference. On a plain html page, the differences are not that visible. I would not make the claim that we’re that much faster because there are CSS and other factors that add a lot of noise to [benchmarks].”

Mozilla also developed its own Kraken benchmark to measure real-world use – loading a Facebook page rather than repetitive tasks – and it came out on top of other browsers. But benchmarks typically don’t impress me; not when real world speeds can differ from what these tests say. What most mattered to me is that I could actually see the progress of Firefox, especially when dealing with HTML5. A few demos of web apps that utilized the accelerometer, scripting, and dynamic content were smooth and lag-free despite a spotty web connection. As HTML 5 become more prevalent, this will be an important strength of Firefox.

On availability, Honeycomb, and Google TV…

Firefox is currently compatible with most Android devices 2.0 and above, including Honeycomb tablets. However, Mozilla plans to make Firefox truly take advantage of tablet device strengths.

“[Tablets are] definitely an opportunity for us to use all of the features and large screen for a better user experience,” Arend said. “Typically, there’s widgets or large screens for displaying information, but not much in between. We can do some special things in our next version.”

Google TV is currently not in the cards for Firefox because Mozilla is focused on mobile devices and not embedded systems. Arend notes that Firefox could technically run on Android 2.0 and higher, which is a description that GTV fits, but it’s more likely that a member of the developer community builds some type of add-on that works with Google TV. A full-fledged Firefox for GTV is not on the roadmap.

On Adobe Flash…

“We do not support plugins in the current version,” Arend responded when asked about Adobe Flash support being integrated into Firefox. “We have support for HTML 5 and we invest heavy in those technologies. However, Flash is a reality and will be in a while. It’s in our roadmap to evaluate options for how we embed technology like Flash but not in the current release.”

The release candidate for Firefox is available in the Android Market. It supports phones and tablets in a rather impressive manner, so download the app and test it out for yourself. Here are some feature highlights that I noticed during my talk with Mozilla. Some features may already be familiar to experienced Firefox for Android users.

  • There’s an option to run in full screen. The UI puts all controls outside of view until they are needed, so there’s no clutter. “It’s difficult enough to see the web on a small screen,” as Arend says, so allowing access to tab browsing, smart search bars, and bookmarking tools without eating up screen real estate makes sense.
  • Firefox has two interesting zoom modes. Pinch-to-zoom is dynamic and follows your movement. So if you zoom and drag your thumbs to another part of the screen, the zoom is instantly applied. Users can also double-tap on a specific section and zoom in to a particular block of text or even a stock ticker.
  • The “Awesome Bar” shows pages visited often or recently when you go to type-in a URL. As you type, the order of suggested sites change, so this reduces typing and saves time on a mobile device.
  • The Android app synchs all your computers – desktops and phones – that run Firefox. You can switch devices an still open tabs, browse synch history, or have form data stored in the cloud and ready for use. For instance, I can log-in to Amazon and have my credentials pre-fetched based on preferences on the desktop. I can then turn this feature off by deleting my profile if I have security concerns.
  • There are thousands of add-ons that make Firefox even better, just like on the desktop. Community support for customizing and adding new features – like the ability to tweet directly from the Awesome bar – add to the appeal. There are also more than 200,000 Firefox personas to theme the browser.