Fennec, the mobile version of Firefox, is just beginning to appear in the mobile world with beta versions available for Maemo and Android. As you'd expect from a beta version, Mozilla hasn't quite achieved optimal performance, and there is no sign of a Symbian version yet. However, the killer feature of Fennec which gives it the potential to be big is the Weave add-on, which synchronises your browser profile with Mozilla's servers, even allowing you to view tabs you have been viewing on other devices. It's this latter feature that surpasses the synchronisation options of Opera. Synchronising tabs allows one to easily transfer one's browsing session from the desktop to a mobile device with no fuss.
So let's look at the arguments around this idea:
1. Development of Symbian Web has been stilted.
To date, development of the Symbian browser has always lagged behind the competition. Thanks to being built on Webkit, Web has the rendering power to be a great mobile browser. Especially on Symbian^3, it is already very competent at rendering even moderately heavy websites. The problem has been with adding features, most notably the lack of browsing in multiple windows or tabs. Some sort of bookmark sync, for sharing with the desktop and migrating to other phones, would be appreciated too.
Note - all of this could change any day now. As we already know, Nokia is working on a new browser, and any of these features could be included - we live in hope!
2. Ovi Branding.
From Nokia's point of view, there is the argument that each of the competing mobile platforms have their own browser, why should Nokia be different? When you consider the third party browser market, Fennec is the only open source alternative; Opera, Skyfire, and Bolt are all proprietary. Therefore, Nokia can still have its own browser in all the ways that matter. Any Ovi branding or services that Nokia may want to integrate can be done so via plugins, or by a modification of the Fennec code.
3. Firefox is the most popular browser in Europe.
It was recently reported that Firefox has taken the top-spot from Internet Explorer among European users. Meanwhile, Nokia sees itself as having a responsibility for building the European mobile ecosystem (according to Marko Ahtisaari at Le Web 2010). Nokia also has a history of collaboration and cooperation, where it has been viable to do so (e.g. the Symbian Foundation experiment). Therefore, this at least teases at a potential synergy between both parties. More so when one considers that Mozilla already support Nokia's Maemo operating system, despite it being something of a technological cul de sac.
4. Desktop synchronisation.
As mentioned above, the extent of the desktop synchronisation that exists in Mozilla Weave surpasses that found in Opera. Fennec promises to make browsing a seamless experience between desktop, laptop and mobile devices. This is a compelling feature which could encourage the emerging smartphone users to embrace mobile browsing by enabling them to resume their desktop browsing session on their phone. Adoption of this by Nokia could be mutually beneficial to Mozilla and Nokia. Nokia could help spread this type of functionality out to the public, while that power and functionality would certainly enhance Nokia's consumer standing via word of mouth.
5. Competing with Opera
Besides the advanced synchronisation power of Weave, just the ability to synchronise bookmarks and passwords is a convenient feature to have in a mobile browser. This type of functionality has so far just been the preserve of Opera. This, coupled with Opera's performance benefits, have meant that they are the major competitor to Nokia's own browser. Were Nokia to adopt the Fennec browser, it would be offering a compelling out of the box competitor to Opera. Moreover, it would be a browser in which Nokia can deliver its own branding and services (as per point #2). The only contentious point is who handles the user data? Surely a Nokia specific Weave plugin could be used to utilise an Ovi-based Sync service, so that Nokia wouldn't have to rely on Mozilla's services, but this would then go against the cross platform nature of Fennec.
6. Fennec is not ready yet.
The Fennec browser is certainly not ready for prime time yet. Having tested it on the N900 and two Android phones, it's clear to me that Fennec currently requires considerable resources to run smoothly. However, further development will likely see this improve, along with ever more powerful hardware. If Nokia was to invest resources into the Fennec project, we could see its code optimisation be significantly accelerated, this would not only benefit Nokia, but also the community at large, which is a worthwhile act of citizenship in the technology world.
7. Embracing Qt.
Were Nokia to lend its development expertise to the Fennec project, then it would make sense to port Fennec to Qt. This would allow easier development for all three of Nokia's platforms, Symbian, MeeGo, and Maemo (PR1.3 included the Qt framework).
8. Fennec is cross platform.
From Nokia's point of view, this might mean that it would be easier to migrate away from its products. However, this idea goes both ways, and it would be equally convenient for consumers to switch to Nokia devices, whether it be Symbian or MeeGo.
So there we have it - these are the key points I can see that relate to Nokia adopting Fennec as its browser. There are issues of contention however, as mentioned above. Significantly, Web isn't going away from Symbian any time soon; it is increasingly entwined within other applications in Symbian, such as various WRT widgets and third party services in Ovi Maps. Furthermore, there is a liability issue when it comes to handling customer data for synchronisation services - who blames who when things go wrong?
It's highly unlikely to ever happen, but it raises the question of how far mobile platforms need to go in deploying a software suite when third party alternatives exist.
David Gilson for All About Symbian, 13th January 2010.