Mozilla is in informal talks with mobile operators about its mobile Firefox project, which the organisation hopes will shake up the market as much as the introduction of the desktop browser did in 2004.
"Mozilla's mission is to break open a closed market," said Mike Schroepfer, Mozilla's vice president of engineering, during a visit to London earlier this week. But "it won't happen overnight."
The impact, however, will be felt before year's end. By then, Mozilla is aiming to release a mobile browser for two operating systems: embedded Linux and Microsoft's Windows Mobile.
At this point, operators and carriers "want to know how much it will cost," Schroepfer said. That's an easy answer: mobile Firefox will be free, he said.
But the introduction of a free mobile browser is potentially threatening to some operators. Some handset manufacturers and carriers rigidly control applications and services, maximising their revenue by creating so-called "walled gardens" where only their own for-fee services can be accessed.
Those carriers will have to be wooed to allow their subscribers to download mobile Firefox. "I think that some carriers will basically fight this kicking and screaming, and some will embrace it and move ahead quickly," said Christian Sejersen, who is head of Mozilla's mobile engineering group in Copenhagen.
Sejersen recently travelled to Japan and Korea to speak with manufacturers and operators. In Japan, operators said their subscribers transmit three to four times more data when allowed to browse the open web than they do when kept in a walled garden. That opens the door for more data transmission revenue, but also could make operators merely a "pipe" to the Internet.
Mozilla is also counting on operators to help contribute to the development of mobile Firefox in the same way the open-source community lends its labour for the desktop browser, Sejersen said.
Nokia has already done this. Versions of the N800 tablet and N810, which both run on Linux, have a browser that utilises Mozilla's Gecko rendering engine, used to layout Web pages. Nokia has also contributed code back to the community, Sejersen said.
Sejersen would like to see a greater proportion of developers contributing code to the mobile side.
"Companies are more interested in getting a product release for themselves," Sejersen said. "We will probably see a higher contribution level."
Mozilla has also stepped up its efforts, turning mobile Firefox into a full-fledged project. Five full-time engineers are working at the mobile development center in Copenhagen, and Mozilla is hiring more, Sejersen said. Copenhagen was chosen since Europe has strong mobile expertise, he said.
Mozilla is also seeing positive signs from manufacturers. Korean powerhouse Samsung has submitted suggestions for the user interface. Also, Mozilla is working with chip designers ARM and Intel to make mobile Firefox run well on their chips, Schroepfer said. Mobile Firefox will be designed to work on ARM 11 processors, Sejersen said.
Mozilla has been criticised for getting a late start in the mobile browser field. Competitors include Opera Software, Apple, Nokia and Microsoft. But Sejersen said mobile browsers have quite a way to go to make browsing as easy as it is on the desktop.
Apple set a high bar with its Safari browser on the iPhone and the iPod Touch, with its zoom feature to magnify Web pages. But Sejersen said it would be better if the browser remembered where the user zoomed last time on a Web page to stop incessant fidgeting with the zoom feature.
Mozilla hasn't developed a workable solution to the problem just yet. But it shows that there's room for innovation.
"Somebody needs to come in from the side and give everybody a kick," Sejersen said. "I think the iPhone has done it ... but I still think there's more than can be done to make [browsing] easier."
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