Mozilla and Qualcomm unveil native ARM64 Firefox version for Windows 10

Microsoft is betting on Arm-powered notebooks for improved battery life and LTE connections, though it only recently enabled developers to deliver native ARM64 applications.

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Mozilla is working with leading smartphone SoC manufacturer Qualcomm to bring an optimized version of Firefox to Snapdragon-powered notebooks running Windows 10, the company announced Thursday. Because browsers are often the most-used program on consumer and professional workstations, a native, optimized browser for Windows 10 on Arm is indispensable for the success of that platform.

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In contrast to earlier attempts to use Windows on Arm CPUs, Windows 10 for Arm contains an inline emulator (essentially, a native compatibility layer) which allows Win32 programs to be used on Arm devices. This does come at a performance penalty, however, and with the same limitations that 32-bit programs on traditional systems face, including restrictions on how much RAM can be used.

In November 2018, Microsoft unveiled official support for developer tools to create native 64-bit Arm apps for Windows 10, bypassing the inline emulator, granting developers the ability to make full use of the underlying hardware.

Independent of Arm-related developments, Mozilla has worked to position Firefox as the privacy- and performance-focused alternative to Google Chrome. Firefox Quantum is one result of that effort, increasing stability by breaking out tabs into individual processes. This prevents one errant tab from bringing the whole browser crashing down. Quantum also makes extensive use of GPU acceleration, increasing performance and battery life as processing and display tasks are delegated to the components most suited to perform them.

For privacy enhancements, Firefox blocks cryptocurrency mining scripts by default, provides methods to block alert requests by default, and strips referrers when using Private Browsing mode. Mozilla also offers the Facebook Container extension, which prevents Facebook from tracking people around the web by isolating Facebook identities into a separate container from other browsing activities.

Where are the Arm-powered Windows 10 devices?

To date, Microsoft has faced a substantial amount of difficulty gaining any momentum for Windows 10 on Arm. The first generation of Snapdragon 835-powered ultraportable notebooks, including the HP Envy x2 and Asus NovaGo were lauded for having an exceptionally long battery life, and an always-on LTE connection, but criticized for poor performance and app compatibility.

The second generation of Windows 10 Arm laptops are available presently, powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 850. These have been hampered by the disastrous rollout of the Windows 10 October 2018 update, which resulted in driver issues prompting dreaded blue screens of death, as well as bugs resulting in files being wiped, incorrect CPU utilization, and mapped drives disappearing. The October 2018 update was pulled by Microsoft pending fixes to these bugs, complicating support for Snapdragon 850 powered systems, as the October 2018 build was the only version of Windows 10 tested and approved for that processor.

The big takeaways for tech leaders:

  • Mozilla is working with Qualcomm on bringing an optimized version of Firefox to Snapdragon-powered notebooks running Windows 10.
  • In November 2018, Microsoft released developer tools to create native 64-bit Arm apps for Windows 10, approximately eight months after Snapdragon-powered notebooks shipped.

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Image: FIrefox