It's the first public release of the browser, code-named Fennec. Despite being made by Nokia, the Linux-based N800 devices aren't quite mobile phones. They are larger than a phone but smaller than a laptop and can connect to the internet via Wi-Fi. They don't include cellular capabilities, although users can connect a phone to the device to reach the mobile internet. The devices are popular with developers because they use open-source software, but Nokia has not revealed sales figures to indicate how many are in the market.
In addition to the alpha release for the internet tablets, Mozilla is offering a PC emulator that developers can download to their desktops to see some of the features included in the browser and to get a feel for the user interface, said Jay Sullivan, vice president of mobile for Mozilla.
"This is really for our community to be able to test and localise and build add-ons," he said, referring to both the emulator and the internet tablet release.
Mozilla hopes that this release will result in some good user feedback, Sullivan said. "The next step in the roadmap is to start optimising for performance," he said.
His group has simultaneously been developing a version of Fennec for Windows Mobile phones. While Sullivan said they've been working hard on it, he wouldn't reveal a release time frame for that browser. His group has also been looking at developing the browser for LiMo phones that are based on the mobile Linux operating system and for Symbian phones, he said.
One unique feature to the browser is that it displays control buttons, such as back and forward, off screen. Users flick the screen to the left or right to display and click the buttons. "One of our big goals is to take advantage of the whole screen, because they are pretty small," Sullivan said. The design lets a webpage fill the whole screen.
He also thinks that Fennec will be unique because Firefox developers will be able to build add-ons for it. "We don't claim to have all the answers. We want to build a great product but make it extensible so anyone can hack on it," he said.
Mobile browsing has historically been a painful experience and countless handset and software makers have created mobile browsers hoping to make them easier to use. While mobile browser development from the likes of Apple, Google and Microsoft is unlikely to cease because of Fennec, other mobile browser efforts may, Sullivan said. "When our browser is ready, a lot of folks will stop building custom browsers," he said. "Carriers and OEMs are telling me they'd rather ship Firefox rather than hack together their own browser."
NEXT PAGE: Mozilla's previous attempts to build a mobile browser
Mozilla has released an alpha version of its mobile browser for Nokia's N810 and N800 internet tablets.
While he wouldn't reveal names, Sullivan said that Mozilla is talking to handset makers and operators about preloading Fennec onto phones. Traditionally, only a very small percentage of phone users load applications onto their phones so preloading the browser could significantly help distribution.
This isn't the first time that Mozilla has begun work on a mobile browser and most of its previous attempts have fizzled. For several years it worked on a mobile browser it called Minimo that included a release for Windows Mobile devices. But last year Mozilla said it wouldn't continue work on that browser, instead focusing on Fennec, which is based on the latest Mozilla platform that also supports Firefox.
Mozilla also developed and later retired a project called Joey that let people save portions of websites while on their PC and call up those images from their mobile phones.
While Mozilla has been working on those projects, Apple released its iPhone and included a mobile version of its Safari browser. That browser has been widely praised as a significant improvement over historical mobile browsers because it displays web pages just as they look on a computer but allows users to easily scroll around and examine the page. In two weeks, the G1 - first phone running Google's Android software will hit the UK market and it includes a browser developed by Google and based on webkit, the same technology that fuels Safari. That browser offers a similar improved experience but one-ups Apple's Safari because it can display Flash websites.