Early Mozilla mobile browser has 'showstopper' flaw

Mozilla said that many people who tried the pre-alpha version of its Fennec mobile browser couldn't get it to load Web pages.

Perhaps pre-alpha was a bit too early for Mozilla to release its Fennec mobile browser for Windows Mobile.

Early adopters who downloaded the application after it was announced Feb. 10 found it essentially doesn't work. "The bad news is the browser is basically useless for many people," Mark Finkle, a Fennec developer, wrote in a blog post describing the problem.

The episode doesn't bode well for Mozilla, which has already faltered with previous mobile browsing efforts and is lagging behind competitors including Opera, Apple's Safari and IE Mobile, which are securing footholds among mobile users.

For many people who tried Fennec on Windows Mobile, the browser loaded only a checkerboard pattern image any time they tried to open a Web page.

Finkle suspects the problem is related to restrictions that Windows Mobile puts on memory use. Fennec developers are working on ways to get around those restrictions to solve the problem, he said.

When Fennec developers released the browser, they said it wasn't meant to be a broad release, but they hoped early adopters would try it and offer feedback about how it works.

They targeted just one device, the HTC Touch Pro. However, people commenting after the initial blog post say that they could only load the checkerboard pattern even on the Touch Pro.

Fennec is also available as an alpha release on Nokia's N810 tablets.

While other browser developers are improving the mobile Web experience, Mozilla has struggled for years to get a working browser to the mobile market. In 2004, its Minimo mobile browser project was promising enough to attract a financial investment from Nokia. The effort slowly fizzled, however, and in late 2007 Mozilla said it would discontinue work on Minimo and focus on a new effort that became known as Fennec.

Mozilla also spent some time developing a project called Joey, which lets users clip and save text, photos and videos while using a PC and then access that content through a browser on a cell phone. That too fizzled after about a year and is no longer supported.

Meanwhile, Apple set the bar higher for mobile browsing with its version of Safari on the iPhone, which displays Web pages just as they appear on a computer, letting users zoom in to read sections of a page. Microsoft plans to offer an updated version of IE Mobile that similarly makes it easy for users to zoom in on Web pages.

In addition, Opera has aggressively developed and promoted its mobile browsers, and new entrants like Skyfire have earned praise for innovation.

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Nancy Gohring

IDG News Service
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