App Review: Firefox Mobile & Weave

Initial FF Mobile display

FF Mobile In Action

Today I’d like to tell you about Firefox Mobile on the N900, running in conjunction with the new Mozilla Weave web service. I’ve been testing them out on my handset for about a month now since the beta release of Fennec (the codename for Firefox Mobile). The N900 is the first device to get Firefox Mobile but it should also appear on Google Android phones in the near future. There is talk from Mozilla of an iPhone version too, but Apple are so draconian with 3rd party software I’m not sure that’ll happen. I just can’t see them allowing another browser on the iPhone to compete with Safari. (correction: According to Fab the iPhone has allowed some 3rd party browsers already, see link in comments) Anyway, here’s my thoughts upon testing Firefox Mobile for some time.

Facing The Critics:

It seems fashionable with some people to bash Firefox right now and use it as the butt of their jokes. I think many of them are too quick to forget the great work Mozilla have done for us in spreading Open Source software to the masses. Many users get their first exposure to the wonderful world of FOSS through the likes of OpenOffice.org and Firefox. Sure it’s not perfect, it has it’s bugs and it can be slow at times too. But I think the emergence of real competitors like Google Chrome has and will continue to improve Open Source browsers in general. I like Chromium but Firefox is still the browser of choice on my desktop. Weave is also an interesting prospect and I’ll talk more about that in a minute. I was curious to see if I would like this new compact Firefox quite as much as I like it’s big brother.

What’s Weave?

Weave Syncing Firefox Tabs

Weave At Work

I mentioned Mozilla Weave earlier, it’s a new web service designed to make syncing your browsing history, bookmarks, tabs, form data and even passwords easy over multiple installations of Firefox. Imagine you have Firefox installed on a few different computers around the house, a laptop and a desktop perhaps. Having them synced up and sharing data means you’re always up to date whichever machine you’re on. There have long been extensions to share bookmarks but this takes it to a whole new level. Add in the fact that Firefox Mobile supports this on your phone and it becomes a much more interesting prospect. Wherever I happen to be a quick click on my phone brings up all the tabs I have open on my laptop. This is all achieved by syncing the data to a remote Mozilla web server and then sharing it between devices. You have to sign up for an account with Weave which is free, but a lot of people will have serious security concerns about it. According to Mozilla the data is all encrypted locally before it’s sent to their server, so even they can’t access it without your permission. I still don’t trust it with precious things like passwords and form data though, perhaps I’m paranoid. I use Weave to sync browsing history, bookmarks and tabs. It’s very easy to change these settings and it doesn’t share your passwords by default, which is a good thing I think. It’ll be interesting to see if it takes off as the browser spreads to more devices.

UI Design:

Exposing right toolbar

A drag to the left...

Obviously mobile devices have much less screen real estate for developers to use and the last thing you want is to have your page blocked out by copious toolbars, “tool” being the operative term in that sentence. The N900 has a pretty respectable 800×480 screen resolution but I’m still pleased to see the Mozilla guys have thought about using it wisely. They’ve done this by hiding extra controls to the left and right of the main display area. You can expose them by dragging the page left or right with you finger. To the right you have forward & back buttons, a “bookmark this page” shortcut and access to the app settings.

Exposing the left toolbar

...and a drag to the right

To the left you have tabs and access to Weave integration. I have to admit I was dubious about this interface design at first and I didn’t think dragging the whole page to the side would work. It actually becomes second nature pretty quickly and the ability to have multiple pages open in tabs is very cool. I also like the fact that the “awesome” bar works the same as its desktop counterpart. If you start typing part of an address you’ve visited before it will narrow down helpful suggestions. This actually speeds up browsing a lot and in my laziness I use this feature far more than bookmarks. Having it integrated with your other Firefox installations through Weave makes this much more powerful too. Firefox Mobile helps you fill out forms quicker and jump between fields which is handy. Overall the adapted UI works well, despite my initial reservations I got used to it very quickly.

Performance:
This is the area where most people have issues with Firefox and on a mobile device your patience tends to be even shorter. I have two browsers on the N900 right now: Micro B which is the official Maemo browser, and Firefox Mobile. There’s no doubt that Firefox takes longer to start up and performance is generally slower. The really odd thing about this is that both browsers are Mozilla based so they should be similar. I don’t know what they did to speed it up Micro B but they need to pass that knowledge back so Firefox can be improved. If only Firefox was under the GPL they’d have to pass it back (edit: Possibly not, see comments), but that’s another matter. In fairness the final 1.0 release saw a speed improvement over the beta and RC. Once the browser is loaded it runs quickly enough but does occasionally bog down and crash. I can hear the Firefox haters laughing in the distance. It still needs a little work in this department I feel.

Extensions, But No Flash:

Extension management screenshot

Managing Extensions

Unlike Micro B I don’t seem to have support for Flash in Firefox Mobile. This may be because Micro B comes pre-tweaked as part of the OS, I don’t know. I have my issues with Flash but I do still find support for it important in browsers. Hopefully that will change as HTML5 takes off, but right now I still want Flash support sorry. I tend to switch to Micro B to use YouTube and other sites. Mozilla don’t want to distribute proprietary software and this is probably the main reason Flash isn’t pre-configured, a position I respect. It’s also possible that I could install it myself with a little hacking. Trying to do that automatically in the browser or via a .deb package didn’t work though. On a positive note you do have access to extensions in Firefox Mobile, which many people have become used to on the desktop. I have a few installed and the selection is growing all the time, right now the main one for me is Weave, I don’t use a lot else.

Conclusions:

Awesome bar pic

The Awsome Bar At Work

I enjoy using Firefox Mobile, particularly in conjunction with Weave and I think there’s much to commend about it. However, I’m afraid the overall impression it leaves is of performance problems which still need to be fixed. Slowness and random crashes are not something most users will put up with, especially on mobile devices. I use Micro B a lot more on the N900 because it’s quicker and more stable. There are some interesting features in Firefox Mobile and I do think it has great potential for the future, it’s only just come out of beta so I don’t want to be too harsh. How it will fare on other platforms like Android I’m not sure. The N900 has pretty quick hardware and I shudder to think how slow it might be on a G1 or other handset.

At the moment the browser situation on the N900 is similar to the one I see on my desktop, and at the same time completely different. Bear with me I haven’t lost my mind. It’s great to have a choice of browsers and competition is always good. On the desktop I use Firefox 80% of the time and Chromium the other 20%. On the mobile though it’s Micro B 80% of the time and Firefox 20%. Once the performance improves and I fix flash support that balance may shift. For now though my verdict on Firefox Mobile 1.0 is nice try, I really like the potential, but come back when it’s a bit more polished.

You can download Firefox Mobile here.

Also check out the full slideshow for more pics.

About Dan

Hi I'm Dan, I'm the nutter who creates the content here and oversees things. You can read more about me on the biog page if you like. Thanks :)
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29 Responses to App Review: Firefox Mobile & Weave

  1. Nathaniel says:

    Nice review Dan makes me wish I had a N900 and I’ve currently got the iphone so that’s saying something!!

    • Dan says:

      @nathaniel – That’s cool, thanks for reading. I know I’m not the average consumer but the completely closed nature of the iPhone has always put me right off it. Same with the iPod, I don’t want to use iTunes and I think devices should just work like external drives. Most people don’t worry about that though which is fine. Each to their own :)

  2. SpandexBob says:

    interesting to hear about your impressions of FF on the N900. I’ve been using it since the 1.0 release and I’ve found it pretty good. It certainly starts slower than MicroB but I find them pretty comparable myself, but then maybe I don’t use it as much as yourself.

    Also I’ve not bothered to install Weave. I like the idea behind Weave but I’m not interested in bogging the browser on the N900 with plugins.

    • Dan says:

      @SpandexBob – I get random slow down and occasional crashes on FF mobile, something I haven’t seen with Micro B. It may be something to do with the extensions or other things I have installed as you say. I only really have Weave installed, I’ll take a look at what else there is in an attempt to track it down. Thanks for the comment.

  3. SpandexBob says:

    did you upgrade from the beta to 1.0 or did you do a fresh install? I tried out the beta quickly but was dubious as to how the upgrade would go.

  4. Dan says:

    @spandexbob – I upgraded to the final release. Perhaps cleaning it out and reinstalling would make a difference. The upgrade should work though IMO, lots of people will try it and expect it to.

  5. SpandexBob says:

    @dan – oh yeah of course it should work and people are right to expect it to. Although who hasn’t been caught out by update problems whatever the os or application, makes me wary.

  6. Dan says:

    @SpandexBob – Very true, and I do fresh distro installs when new versions come out for that reason. I suppose it’s no different. I just enabled your LO forum account btw, have fun.

  7. jezra says:

    Chances are that fennec is using XUL for its interface which would explain the slowdown in start up time. I definitely prefer fennec on the n810 for no other reason than it has back button.

    • Dan says:

      @jezra – I think it probably is XUL but I can’t say for sure. It bogs down sometimes when scrolling pages and seems to hit the CPU a lot more than I think it should. I haven’t seen that in Micro B. I use the backspace key on the keyboard to go back but I can see what you mean about the on-screen button.

  8. Fab says:

    There have been 3rd party browsers on the iPhone for ages: http://www.macrumors.com/2009/01/13/apple-allows-3rd-party-web-browsers-in-app-store

    I doubt very much that Apple would block Firefox. The backlash in the press would be bad… It might not be possible to implement FF within the tight technical constraints on the iPhone though…

    • Dan says:

      @fab – I’ll have to correct that thanks, as you know I have little interest in the iPhone but I was reading yesterday about trouble getting Opera Mini onto it. I assumed Apple would apply their usual draconian policies. I should have checked a bit closer though. Cheers :)

  9. tmx says:

    I am eager to use it, but waiting for a stable version for WindowsMobile. I am happy with OperaMobile which is very fast, but prefer Firefox better privacy.

    I like the way they built it using similar technology of the desktop version. NoScript is already there which is great, even though running on a more secure ARM architecture environment. I mainly want adblocking feature and Ghostery as well.

    This will make for a very powerful browser. Unfortunately my TouchPro2 is showing its age, but looking at the specs of newer phones like Windows Phones 7, should be able to handle it.

    • Dan says:

      @tmx – I don’t know when Windows Mobile will get a version of this but I presume it will. I’m not really a fan of the platform so I can’t say.

  10. timeless says:

    Your comments about GPL are bogus:

    MicroB is developed using Client-Server technology. Assume that the code in MicroB as a server is published, that doesn’t magically give you or anyone else a happy or useful Client implementation. (As it happens, the Client is buggy, and no one wants it.) Rough outline of how it works: tablet-browser-ui speaks “eal” to “neteal” which is implemented by tablet-browser-daemon which talks to microb-eal which talks to gecko. The layers involved in microb-eal are open source and ugly as sin. The manual stubbing process used for neteal is hardly clean and has all sorts of unfortunate limitations, quirks, bugs, etc.

    Of note, Fennec is getting a less hacky Client-Server implementation – https://wiki.mozilla.org/Electrolysis – which means that in a future release, it will have similar improvements.

    • Dan says:

      @timeless – So MicroB is just a client that hooks into a Mozilla server back end through an API? It doesn’t actually contain Mozilla code? I didn’t know that. In that case you’re right about the effect of the GPL. Maybe I misunderstood what they meant by “Mozilla-based”, but I assumed they had taken code under the permissive Mozilla license and reused it. Thanks for the information, I’ll have to look into it.

  11. edythemighty says:

    Regarding what timeless said – That’s how Opera Mini works too.

  12. nathaniel says:

    Just a quick note re:itunes I have never come across a worse piece of software than itunes. It not intuitive, options are hidden or put in weird places in fact I’m not looking at getting an iriver for portable mp3 so I can ditch itunes and sync easily in linux.

  13. Dan says:

    @nathaniel – That’s a cool idea. Lot’s of people are raving to me about the Cowon players right now, Archos also do nice players. I’ve always used a player that just works as an external drive. You can do MTP syncing on Linux too of course if needed. Android phones and other things offer this functionality too. Good luck with it, I hope it works out!

  14. tmx says:

    Regarding mp3 players,
    I stopped buying Archos when the Hitachi hdd the device died (1.8″ Hitach hdd had a very bad reliability record), I am not allow to replace it because they implement the serial number into the firmware so if the serial number of the new hdd does not match it wouldn’t even work. Replacing it through their service would cost a lot. Also the idea that I had to purchase “plugins” to even play new formats is ridiculous, and I have to purchase more than once if I own more than one Archos. Also being very late to releasing their SDK. I don’t know how their business strategy is now though, so they might have improve, but they were one of the best PMP devices for playing videos.

    Not a fan of iRiver after they became Microsoft partner. I think Cowon does a good job at providing features and formats.

    Right now I’m using a Rockboxed Sansa, so I would recommend nathaniel to try Rockbox if he hasn’t. I’ve grown to love the features of Rocbox so I would not buy another mp3 player that doesn’t have:
    1. Ogg/FLAC support (see #2)
    2. Rockbox
    3. Removable battery

    Kind of nifty, the new version of Rockbox have a feature that allow my Sansa to become a mouse for the desktop.

  15. Dan says:

    @tmx – Rockbox is very cool I agree, I’ve got a few people onto it :)

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  19. Matej Cepl says:

    Dan, for your pleasure,

    http://www.toolness.com/wp/?p=41 … pretty nice description of the security included in Mozilla Weave (seems sound to me)

    http://tobyelliott.wordpress.com/2009/09/11/weave-minimal-server/ … how to install Weave server on your box. Enjoy! (I haven’t tried that though, because I don’t have my own http server yet).

    Have a nice day, sir,

    Matěj

    • Dan says:

      @Matej – Thanks for the links. I didn’t realise you could install your own Weave server as well. Might have to play with that when I get time. I do like the technology and I think Mozilla are doing a good job on it. Have a nice day too! :)

  20. Some bozo says:

    I think timeless is mistaken regarding the MicroB. Maybe confusing it with opera mini? I’ve never heard of MicroB being client-server and the wikipedia article doesn’t mention anything like that.

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