Nokia has been secretly funding a version of the Mozilla browser for mobile devices since last year, according to a news report. If genuine, the deal could mean a new lease on life for the alternative browser project, which is currently struggling to maintain a tiny fraction of the Internet Explorer-dominated browser market.

Mozilla.org has been planning a move into mobile devices since its inception as a spin-off of Netscape in 1998, and those plans have more recently coalesced into the Minimo (Mini Mozilla) project, which reached an 0.1 release in February. Nokia began funding Minimo last year, according to CNET News. Minimo's project leaders and Nokia have yet to respond.

Full-fledged Web browsers have only recently become practical on mobile devices, with the advent of wireless handheld computers and, more significantly, smartphones incorporating PC-like functionality. Smartphones are only a fraction of the giant mobile phone market, but are already surpassing the market size of data-oriented handhelds; the main operating systems are the Symbian OS, Windows CE and the Palm OS, all of which are actively targeting corporate users. Mobile phone makers sold about 10 million smartphones in 2003, a figure that will quadruple this year and continue steady growth through 2008, ABI Research said in January.

Unlike on the desktop, no one company dominates in mobile browsers. Opera Software's mobile browser runs on devices running Linux or the Symbian OS, but the company has no plans to create a Windows CE version. Meanwhile, Microsoft's portable IE runs only on Windows. Success in the smartphone world could potentially boost a browser's fortunes back on the desktop, where many companies would like an alternative to Microsoft's browser, seen by many industry analysts and customers as outdated and insecure. This month two sets of critical IE-based security flaws have already come to light.

Nokia has previously backed Opera's browser efforts, with Opera included as the default browser on Nokia's 9500 Communicator and the 9210i, and included as an option on other Nokia smartphones. The Opera browser is also default on other Symbian OS handsets, including the Sendo X, the BenQ P30 and the Kyocera ZTE V91, and on the Linux-based Sharp Zaurus SL5500 handheld.

Unlike Opera, Mozilla uses an open-source licence that allows third parties to create their own products based on the code, and has so far mainly been used in other desktop browsers, including Netscape 7, CompuServe, AOL for Mac OS, and the Linux software Ximian Gnome, Galeon and Nautilus. The software runs on embedded devices, but so far only at the higher end, incuding the Nokia Media Terminal and an AOL/Gateway Internet appliance.

Minimo's developers said they are concentrating on full browser functionality rather than on squeezing the code into the smallest possible footprint. "With the release of Minimo, a slimmed down version of Mozilla, we offer a minimalist browser that may be the best browser in the embedded space," said lead developers Doug Turner and Chris Hofmann in an overview of the project last month.

Some industry observers have doubts that Minimo's approach can mount an effective challenge to mobile phone-based browsers. With its 0.1 release for ARM-based hardware the browser requires 25MB of total memory usage (known as Resident Set Size, or "real" memory), small enough to allow it to run on an iPaq but too large for most smartphones on the market today.

The software is targeted at platforms with 64MB of physical memory, according to Minimo developers. This specification is just about met by the Sony Ericsson P900, one of the top-end smartphones, which has 16MB available user RAM and 48MB flash memory, but other handsets don't include as much RAM.

The project leaders defended the browser's ungainly size, arguing that such specifications will be standard on upcoming mobile devices. "64MB is really the form factor that is needed to create any useful browser for handheld devices; and in that space we look very good next to the competition," Turner and Hofmann stated. "We have run tests using Opera and Pocket IE on 32MB device form factors, and neither can make it though the page load test [because of] their lack of browser content and standards support, or they just simply run out of memory trying to display the pages."

Images of iPaq-based Minimo usage can be found on the Mozilla Web site.

The original Mozilla browser suite has also been criticised for its weight problem. Originally planned to be built in small components that could be easily embedded into mobile devices, the software grew into a monolithic browser suite. After Apple passed over Mozilla in favour of the KHTML project as the basis of its Mac OS browser Safari, soul-searching within Mozilla led to the creation of the stripped-down Firefox standalone browser.