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?

Follow me on twitter at: SavioRodrigues

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

Last week I wrote about the benefits of open standards versus open source. I argued that open standards provide greater protection against vendor lock-in than open source alone. I was reminded of this conclusion when reading Peter-Paul Koch’s analysis of WebKit implementations. Thanks to Palm’s Dion Almaer for pointing out the analysis.

Readers know WebKit as the open source web browser engine used by several mobile and PC web browsers including Apple’s Safari, Google’s Chrome, Palm’s WebOS and the Web Browser for Android. In fact, Wikipedia lists 19 browsers that are based on the open source WebKit browser engine. As you read on, keep in mind that there is no standard that vendors using WebKit must adhere to or claim certification against. A WebKit based browser is, well, whatever the vendor wants it to be.

When Koch tested WebKit browser versions on twenty seven tests, he found:

  • Out of 19 tested WebKits, no two are exactly the same.
  • The best WebKit available is Safari 4; the worst is S60v3.
  • The Android G1 and G2 WebKits score rather badly; it’s the worst mobile WebKit except for S60.
  • Regressions are fairly common: iPhone 3.1, Android G2, and S60v5 all (partially) dropped support for something their predecessors did support.
  • The closest relation of a desktop WebKit to a mobile WebKit is between Safari 3.0 and S60v5. I’m now fairly certain S60v5 is actually based on Safari 3.0. Unfortunately this is the single example of such a close relation.

Koch’s testing highlights two truths. First, pity the mobile web application developer whose manager or customer expects that the application will work on multiple mobile browsers that are “built on WebKit”. Second, open source does not make it easier for customers, or their developers, to transition applications from, for example, building for the Google Android platform to, for example, Plam WebOS.

Imagine if there were a WebKit standard and a compliance test suite that vendors had to certify against to use the “WebKit” brand. Customers and developers would gain protection against vendor lock-in that open standards deliver to a much higher degree than open source alone. I’m not naive enough to think that open standards equals “write once, run anywhere”. But even if a WebKit open standard could drive a 50% improvement in compatibility across WebKit-based browsers, that would be something to write home about.

Follow me on twitter at: SavioRodrigues

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