Mozilla announced the availability of a mobile Firefox browser for Nokia smartphones built off the Maemo platform. Reading this news I began to wonder if Firefox has as bright a future on smartphones as it does on PCs, laptops and Netbooks. I’m a happy Firefox user on my PC and sometimes on my Mac, but browser market dynamics don’t seem to be as advanced on mobile devices as they are on traditional PCs today. Users tend to use the native smartphone browser an order of magnitude more than they use the native browser on a PC, laptop or Netbook. If this trend continues, the leading mobile browser will be the browser shipped natively on the leading smartphone, with little room for a third party browser to assert itself as a challenger or leader.

Let’s take a quick look at the native browsers on the leading smartphone platforms. Symbian, the number 1 smartphone operating system by market share builds its own browser. The Blackberry, iPhone, Android and Palm WebOS, the number 2, 3, 5 and 6 smartphone operating systems by market share respectively, all deliver native mobile browsers based on Webkit. Well, Blackberry doesn’t yet, but RIM acquired a company that will help get RIM on the Webkit bandwagon in 2010. Webkit is the competing browser rendering engine to Mozilla’s Gecko engine at the heart of Firefox. The number 4 smartphone operating system, Windows Mobile, not surprisingly ships a mobile IE browser.

Firefox is being shipped as the native browser on two of Nokia’s high end N-series smartphones built off the Maemo platform. But the rest of Nokia’s smartphones are built off the Symbian platform. Additionally, Nokia’s success in the smartphone market is not a fait accompli as the iPhone, Blackberry and Android are viewed to be growing at Nokia & Symbian’s expense.

Mobile Firefox clearly faces an uphill battle for inclusion as the native browser on leading smartphones. However, I wouldn’t write Firefox off in the smartphone arena just yet. As smartphones become more critical to the daily lives of mainstream users, synchronizing between computing devices will become complex and critical. Synchronizing the browsing experience between a traditional PC at work or at home with your smartphone’s browser could become the ‘killer app’ that pulls mobile Firefox onto smartphones. The Weave Sync feature in Firefox addresses just this scenario:

“Sync your Firefox tabs, history, bookmarks and passwords between your desktop and mobile device for a seamless browsing experience”

As I write this I have 28 tabs open in Firefox. Some of the tabs are only open until I find the time to read them. Other tabs contain information that I’ll need to act on when I’m out shopping or out with friends. Today, if I want the information available on my Blackberry I have to email myself the URL or copy and paste information from a webpage into an email to myself. I’d love for my PC browser tabs to be synchronized and available on my Blackberry when I’m out and about. I want this feature so much that I’ll even go as far as adding a third party browser to my Blackberry, something I haven’t bothered to do since becoming a Blackberry user 2 year ago.

It seems unthinkable that Firefox’s growth and popularity on traditional PCs would not somehow translate into a competitive differentiator on smartphones. While Firefox lacks the smartphone distribution channel that Webkit enjoys, Firefox can differentiate in offering a seamless browsing experience across PC and mobile devices.

What do you think about mobile Firefox’s prospects?

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PS: I should state: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.”

Infoworld is reporting that Nokia is buying the remaining ~52% share of Symbian.  Nokia plans to offer the Symbian operating system royalty-free and open sourcing some portion of the code over the next two years.  Nokia likely hopes that offering Symbian royalty free will bolster the use of Symbian across handset providers and related parties. Also, from a bean counter standpoint, Nokia paid over $250MM in Symbian license fees last year, so paying $410M for the remaining share makes business sense.

The press release states that:

“Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola, NTT DoCoMo, AT&T, LG Electronics, Samsung Electronics, STMicroelectronics, Texas Instruments, and Vodafone Group. All will get access to the Symbian operating system under a royalty-free license.”

So these vendors and anyone else will get Symbian royalty free, but will they continue to use it?

But what is the alternative?  Sure we have the Google-led Android platform, LiMo and Windows Mobile.  But millions of Symbian-based phones have been deployed for years already.  So even if vendors start to experiment with Android for one or two phones in their portfolio, it’s pretty risky to bet the whole product portfolio on Android being successful, or more successful than Symbian.

Since several of the vendors listed as Symbian members are also participating in Android, will this news from Nokia pose another hurdle to Android’s ultimate success?  Especially if Nokia can get the code fully open sourced faster than 2 years?  Part of me even thinks that a royalty free (but not open) Symbian operating system by itself will put a dent in Android’s ultimate success.

What do you think?