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25 February 2009, 13:45

Mozilla interview: Opening up mobile browsing

The H speaks to Mozilla VP Jay Sullivan about mobile browsing and application development

by Mary Branscombe

Location, privacy and web standards: as the first alpha and beta releases of Fennec, Mozilla's mobile browser, come out, Mozilla VP Jay Sullivan tells us the phone isn't a separate world any more.

Mozilla Foundation logo Does the world really need another mobile browser? Jay Sullivan, the VP of mobile at the Mozilla Foundation says yes, and not for the reasons you might think. Mobile browsers have already improved by leaps and bounds, he agrees. "There are some OK browsers out there now. Safari on the iPhone is pretty good, Opera's pretty good. We're getting to the point on mobile where you're using a real browser, you know HTML, CSS, JavaScript. If you were active in this space in the earliest days, it was a parallel universe. You take these great web developers and say to them 'Here's this language, WML, it stinks; here's this scripting language called WMLscript, it stinks - and it's going to be really slow'. We're developing using web standards now."

But he believes it's vital for Mozilla to be working on a mobile browser and not just for the many Firefox fans. "Our mission is to keep the web open. Since the web is moving to mobile, kind of by definition we need to be there. And we can't just be on the sidelines talking; the way we have impact is to have a great product. This is a meritocracy. We've got to build something; that gives us credibility on these issues. Without a mobile browser in the market, we can't be in the conversation." Mozilla Fennec logo Fennec is based on the Firefox 3.1 codebase. "Under the covers it's Gecko 1.9.1. That's just a must have," says Sullivan. "Raw JavaScript performance is an important part of the problem and TraceMonkey, our new just-in-time compiler, will be in Fennec from the start." The interface will be familiar: "the user experience does require everything from tabs to bookmarks to history."

There are some web experiences that don't fit with the open vision though. "People ask about YouTube as a proxy for 'is Flash going to work?'. We'd like to get away from little black boxes that are controlled so you have to buy tools from certain companies to build them. We're experimenting with Ogg and Theora, there are <audio> and <video> tags coming through. We realise Flash is a reality on the market, but in longer term we want to go to more open solutions."

Next: What's different about a phone?

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