WELCOME COMPETITION finally arrived with Mozilla's first Firefox 4 beta for Android and Meamo. The release sets the tone for a piece of software that might re-run the browser wars this time on smartphones.
The announcement by Mozilla that it released the first beta of its Firefox 4 browser should be met with relief, as alternative options need to tip up in order to avoid the same complacency that led to Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6 becoming a security hazard. Even at this early stage, Firefox 4 has the makings of a good web browser and one that will vie with Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome for screen space on smartphones.
Mozilla knows that Firefox is earned an image as a cumbersome browser that consumes resources and just isn't fast enough anymore. Since Safari and Chrome, based on the Webkit renderer, are making serious gains in the desktop browser market, Firefox developers are looking to optimise for speed and resource usage rather than just make fancy user interface improvements.
Relatively few users might be bothered with resource usage on desktops where many gigabytes of RAM are the norm, but with smartphones it is vital that not only does Firefox have a small memory footprint, but that it uses as few CPU cycles as possible. So in many ways it is a sign of confidence that the developers proudly said Firefox 4 for mobile is based on the same code as Firefox 4 for the desktop.
On a Nexus One, Firefox 4, even at this early beta stage runs well. While it may seem like the developers are making a big fuss about separate threads for user interface and page rendering the fact is all the technical jiggery-pokery is working. Incomplete rendered pages can be scrolled, smoothly, prior to completion. Zooming in is smooth, though unlike the standard Chrome install that comes with Android, it doesn't auto-zoom so that the main body of text fits on the screen, ignoring other aspects such as advert columns.
The biggest perceptible speed difference comes with Adobe Flash. When using Chrome, scrolling around a webpage laden with Flash adverts and content can be like running fingers through treacle. In fact Firefox 4 does such a good job it makes you wonder whether Flash really is as resource heavy as Apple and Steve Jobs claims.
Mozilla has opted for a 'columned' user interface for Firefox 4. On the left is a graphical list of tabs with the ability to create more while on the right are the usual page navigation buttons and browser settings. It is a clever use of screen space as the sidebars are not visible until scrolling to the far sides of the webpage and results in your fingers not moving away from the central screen.
Of course this being beta there's nothing stopping Mozilla from going down the more conventional route of stripping away buttons completely and utilising a hardware button to bring up options.
Firefox 4 already supports multi-touch expressions such as pinch to zoom. While zooming, the speed of text rendering is pretty good with the time between pixelation and smooth anti-aliased text is short.
Firefox Sync is vital for the browser if it intends to build on its impressive desktop market share. The ability to send data such as open tabs, browsing history and even form-filled data is extremely useful and popular as seen by the pioneer of this technology, Xmarks. The firm announced it was shutting up shop after running out of cash, only to get significant donations from current users causing it to reconsider its decision.
Those who want to launch Firefox 4 instead of Chrome from the desktop task bar can do so by selecting Firefox as the default browser. This relatively simple change should make it a lot easier for Mozilla to gain traction in a market where until now its been absent. Forcing users to make a conscious decision to go through hoops in choosing when to use Firefox would only hinder its take-up.
Even at this early stage Mozilla look to be onto a winner with Firefox 4. The focus on producing a lean browser not only bodes well for the desktop but for Android and Maemo users too. µ