On Mobile Phones, Firefox’s Big Bet Is Nokia & Android

fennec_logoWith little or no chance of ever being able to make it through the draconian approval process of Apple’s (s AAPL) iTunes App Store, Mozilla, the not-for-profit organization behind the Firefox browser, is betting on two major, if emerging, mobile operating platforms: Maemo, Nokia’s (s nok) new Linux-based operating system, and Google’s (s goog) Android OS. But don’t count on Mozilla supporting RIM’s (s rimm) BlackBerry OS anytime soon.

This weekend, during my onstage interview with Mozilla CEO John Lilly, I asked him what his plans were to get Firefox going on mobiles, especially since Webkit had gained so much attention and market share. “It is a different day, same story on the mobile as it was on the desktop,” Lilly quipped. On the desktop, Firefox continues to try to disrupt the entrenched incumbent, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. “Sure, we are behind, but we didn’t want to do a browser that didn’t do the whole web,” Lilly said. “We wanted to build a browser that did everything — Javascript, CSS, Flash, SVG, video and audio. What that meant was we had to wait for a while for devices to get better to handle this modern browser.” Lilly said that Mozilla’s mobile browser, code-named Fennec, is Firefox with the most advanced rendering engine. “It is the most advanced mobile browser,” he said. Fennec is based on the Firefox 3.6 engine, which is not even available on the desktop just yet.

fennecmaemo3_thumbAnd Lilly isn’t just tooting his own horn. I’ve been playing around with an early version of Nokia’s N900 device, and Firefox is perhaps its single biggest standout feature. It works just like it does on a desktop and, thanks to the seamless integration of AwesomeBar, a smarter version of a URL bar that uses Mozilla Weave, I can get access to all my bookmarks, my browsing history and other preferences. (Related Post: “Coming Soon: A Mozilla App for the iPhone“)

When I asked Lilly about why Mozilla is interested in the Nokia Maemo, which is still not a viable platform, he explained that Mozilla was betting on the future and Maemo was a modern mobile OS built with the Internet in mind. “Nokia is invisible in the U.S., but that is not the case in rest of the world,” Lilly said. Even if N900 doesn’t prove to be the device that gets explosive adoption, then the next Maemo device will be the one that gets traction. Mozilla will release Firefox for Windows Mobile and then Android, he said.

Why? Because he thinks there is a lot of overlap among folks who use Firefox and those who might buy Android-based devices.  When I asked why not develop Firefox for BlackBerry, Lilly said that because the BlackBerry is a Java-based platform, Mozilla had no interest in building a browser for it, regardless of the number of devices in use. Mozilla also has some misgivings about Symbian, preferring to develop for Maemo instead.

“Until recently, Android was Java, but they released Android NDK which uses C/C++ and that is what we program in, so we are now looking at developing Firefox for Android,” said Jay Sullivan, vice president of Mobile for Mozilla.

“Mozilla Firefox will be the first mobile browser to support add-ons,” boasted Sullivan, pointing to the fact that nearly 2 billion Firefox add-ons have been downloaded to date, and they’ve spawned successful companies such as StumbleUpon. He expects similar traction for Firefox on the mobile. “We have been spending a lot of time on making sure that JavaScript and our engine work really fast on ARM processors,” Sullivan said. “That has taken some time.”

Subscribe to GigaOM Pro and get this indepth analysis of the mobile apps market for $79.

Subscribe to GigaOM Pro and get this indepth analysis of the mobile apps market for $79.

The reason: Mozilla wants developers to embrace the more open HTML5 standards instead of developing separately for different mobile platforms. “For a company of 20 people, it is hard to support multiple platforms,” Lilly said. “Even if one platform takes 20 percent of the  market, there are other platforms you still need to develop for, and that isn’t easy for a small company. So that is why we are with Google in supporting HTML5 technologies.”

Like Lilly, Sullivan acknowledges that they have their work cut out for them: Webkit-based browsers and Opera are the dominant players in mobile, and Firefox will need to prove itself.  The good news is that mobile is a much bigger market than desktops; multiple browsers and companies can thrive. With Nokia, Mozilla has a willing (and somewhat desperate) ally, and that is a good start.