Fennec: Firefox for Mobile reaches alpha

Mozilla has released Firefox for Mobile alpha code, codenamed Fennec, to users of the Nokia N810 and N800 Internet tablet. We take a look at the features of Fennec.

How would you like to be among the first to get touchy-feely with the next mobile browser everyone's talking about? Mozilla's release of the Firefox for Mobile alpha code, codenamed Fennec, grants that wish to users of the Nokia N810 and N800 Internet tablet (installation details here).

For the rest of us, the anxiety-filled wait continues.

Even though most of us can't play with Firefox Mobile firsthand, here's what we can expect when the release does become more broadly available on other platforms: a full-screen display with navigation set to the side. A version of the Firefox 3 Awesome Bar that combines history, bookmarks, and search. Plenty of capability for add-ons.

Let's look at these features in more detail.

Navigation: Fennec has a full-screen mode that relinquishes the entirety of the screen for your browsing pleasure. This is consistent with one of the early designs, and with some functionality of the Opera Mobile 9.5 beta browser for touch-screen phones. As long as it won't slow you down while going backward and forward, this is a smart idea for mobile phones--after all, what good is it to clutter your small screen with buttons you use only half the time?

Using Fennec, you'll pan to the right to reach the navigation and controls. (Credit: Mozilla Labs)

Awesome Bar: Don't expect a complete replica of Firefox 3's Awesome Bar to show up on your mobile phone, but do expect something close enough to save you typing time. An official demo video reveals a bookmarking button to the right of the URL that lets you quickly grab favorites from a drop-down list. Roughly the same event transpires when you tap the URL bar; your links display below before you type a thing.
I'm less convinced, however, by the search bar along the bottom edge of the screen. It seems convenient enough to type in your term, than to click the engine you prefer to search with--either Google, Yahoo, Amazon, or Answers.com. It turns out this search bar is a bit redundant, which some may see as a convenience and others as unnecessary. Search, in fact, is bundled into the URL bar and is duplicated below to focus the query on one specific engine.

Tabs and controls will receive a new mobile-specific treatment as well. Instead of hovering above in buttons, you'll find that controls live in the right-hand margin of the Web page and tabs, really preview windows, are way over to the left. It will be very interesting to see how this setup handles during sustained surfing and whether it ends up slowing down browsing, or if it succeeds in keeping the focus trained on the content in the center.

Add-ons and others: One of Fennec's goals is to carry over as much functionality from Firefox 3 as possible. Already, this early version contains a password manager that offers to save and auto-fill your logins. Anyone who has spent more time than necessary pressing Alt or some other key to switch among letters, symbols, and characters on your smartphone (all features of a strong password) will appreciate the time-saving qualities of having a secure password manager onboard. No matter how you shine it, a mobile keyboard (virtual or otherwise) is less than ideal for inputting text.

Tabs are more a throwback to traditional Internet windows on the upcoming Firefox Mobile. (Credit: Mozilla Labs)

Fennec's alpha build also debuts with pop-up blocking and the familiar logo to the left of the search bar that serves up the identity of the Web site owner.
Most importantly, Fennec supports add-ons. A few have already been created, but this build is going out now in part to engage the thousands of independent add-on developers in the conversation of building, porting, and deploying mobile extensions.

One difference here will be exactly where in the interface your add-ons will sit. This wouldn't be much of an issue if most users employed one or two extensions, but the average could be in the range of a dozen or more. Since a phone's screen is much tinier, icons will likely inhabit a context menu or pop-up control bar.

Firefox add-ons bring the uber-popular browser its character. It seems obvious that making the mobile version of Firefox extensible and customizable will likewise herald its instant popularity, and will threaten the dominance of Opera Mini and Opera Mobile.

What about Flash video? Mozilla's team knows that most people want to stream video from their mobile phones, and that having Flash is therefore a must. The official answer on this one is that Fennec will support a plugin API, which means that as long as Adobe and others give the green light, you'll eventually be able to play YouTube videos via Firefox's mobile browser.

Fennec on Windows Mobile phones There's been a lot of Internet chatter about when Mozilla will release the next alpha version of Fennec. According to Jay Sullivan, Mozilla's Mobile director, that won't be for a few more months; not a few weeks, as some sources suggest. Fennec must first undergo some changes to be readied for that introduction. First, it must be able to run on standard non-touch-screen phones as well as touch screen formats. Second, it must be stable in portrait mode as well as in landscape mode. Third, there may be necessary tweaks to make it legible on a smaller screen.

Keep in mind that both Nokia Internet tablets with which Fennec is compatible have much larger screens than most smartphones and are in landscape mode. These are both traits that give Fennec plenty of room to run. While the Nokia tablets (which are not phones) will showcase Fennec well, there may still need to be engineering work before the alpha mobile browser can comfortably transition to a consumer phone.

-- Posted by Jessica Dolcourt