Mozilla has released the first Firefox 4 beta for Android, the organization's best shot for mobile relevance. And that relevance could increase as Android tablets hit the market.
With the release, Firefox has a shot to be more of a mobile player. Today, Firefox really has little to no presence on the mobile front. Firefox isn't available on Apple's iPhone or Research in Motion's BlackBerry. Android popularity is surging so Firefox could gain traction that way.
Firefox's real chance for mobile stardom will be with the adoption of Android tablets. With tablets you're less forgiving about the browsing experience. As Android tablets hit the market, Firefox could tag as companies like Samsung ramp up the Galaxy Tab.
The good news is that the Firefox 4 beta is "built on the same technology platform as Firefox for the desktop and optimized for browsing on a mobile phone," according to a blog post.
That's also the bad news. In my limited testing on a Motorola Droid X, Firefox 4 beta 1 was solid, but I did suffer more than my share of crashes. Those crashes also occur on the desktop from time to time. CNET News' Stephen Shankland has a thorough review and noted the crash problems on his gripe list.
But Firefox 4 for mobile is a beta so some hassles are to be expected.
A major focus of this release is to increase performance and responsiveness. Two of the big architecture changes are Electrolysis and Layers. Our alpha contained Electrolysis which allowed the browser interface to run in a separate process from the one rendering Web content, resulting in a much more responsive browser. This beta brings the Layers pieces which improve overall performance and in graphics areas such as scrolling, zooming and animations.
The performance of Firefox 4 beta 1 was ok, but didn't strike me as a speed demon by any stretch. It's likely that the speed will improve over time with new releases.
Firefox's challenge is to bridge its desktop audience to the mobile front. Firefox users who happen to have an iPhone are likely using Safari. Other smartphone users may be accustomed to Opera. Fortunately for Mozilla, no mobile browser is perfect so it has room to elbow Firefox into the conversation.
Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and Editorial Director of TechRepublic.