Fennec Alpha 2 focuses on performance

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Fennec Alpha 2 focuses on performance

Chicago (IL) – The latest Fennec alpha 2 release, which is likely to become Mobile Firefox in 2009, still runs only on Nokia’s N810 Internet Tablets but there are Windows, OS X and Linux versions that emulate mobile experience on a desktop for testing purposes. The software delivers improved performance, faster startup as well as accelerated rendering and a streamlined user interface.

Hands-on: Fennec Alpha, Mozilla’s first mobile browser (13 pictures)

Mozilla’s has been criticized for not delivering a mobile browser, but Fennec seems to be a solid application that is marching towards a late H1 2009 release. We previously said that the browser has the potential to reshape mobile browsing when it is released and Alpha 2 provides enough reason for us to say that again.    Key features of Fennec include the Gecko rendering engine and an optimized JavaScript engine called Trace Monkey, which we expect to show up in beta versions of the browser. These underlying technologies work in tandem with a touch-based user interface that moves user controls out of the way to increase the space for web content. A simple left or right swipe in Fennec scrolls entire web area to either side of the screen just enough to reveal vertical panels with thumbnails of open tabs as well as browser settings, history, add-ons, etc.

Fennec borrows Firefox’s intelligent address bar that doubles as a search box, complete with customizable search engine keywords and easy access to multiple search engines. Fennec and Firefox will also share settings, history and bookmarks via cloud syncing that will allow users to share the same browsing environment. A geolocation JavaScript API will enable Fennec to determine the location of a device and share it with authorized web sites to display content relevant to a user’s location.

The biggest game-changer will be Mozilla-based add-ons supports, which are supported by Fennec as well – a move industry watchers view as a disruptive change in mobile browsing. Also included will be user interface themes, a password manager, a searchable download manager and a pop-up blocker.

Performance improvements

While alpha 1 was about building a new touch-based user interface and introducing core features and technologies, alpha 2 is all about tuning. The developers squashed bugs we noticed in alpha 1 and tweaked a few existing features that appeared rough around the edges. The new code is much more stable, web pages render faster, zooming and panning around is smoother and the user interface is more responsive, especially while pages are loading.

“While we focused much of the previous alpha on getting the user experience how we wanted, we’ve spent much of the time since focused on improving performance,” said Mozilla’s engineering manager Stuart Parmenter. “We’ve made major strides improving startup performance, panning and zooming performance, and responsiveness while pages are loading.” Parmenter noted the team “refactored” a significant amount of the front-end code that not only results in substantial speed improvements but provides a much better base for extensions as well.

In terms of layout, the browser sports a refined look with more usability, while add-on developers will notice new content manipulation hooks. Another addition is support for Extended Validation (EV) certificates used to identify companies and individuals running a web site.

What is still missing

We noticed that this version of Fennec has difficulties displaying large amounts of content in IFrames, especially in sites like Google Mail and Reader. Plug-ins are still disabled. While UI themes and add-ons can be displayed via the built-in “market”, there not many themes to play with at this point. Add-on developers are waiting for the frozen code and a feature-complete release before they tweak their add-ons. Most existing Firefox add-ons don’t “just work”, because minor changes are needed to address limited screen sizes on mobile devices and the new touch-based user interface. Bookmark folders are also not yet implemented. We would expect at least one more alpha release before Mozilla posts a beta version of Fennec.


Fennec alpha 2 is released primarily for the OS2008 software platform (a mobile Linux platform dubbed “Maemo”) that powers Nokia’s N810 Internet Tablets, where Fennec runs natively. There are also Windows, OS X and Linux versions, courtesy of XULRunner. Desktop versions are not Mozilla’s main focus, but the open-source organization provides them as a way for add-on creators and interested users to test the browser, localize it, and write add-ons. The desktop versions are un-supported products and they do not accurately represent the real-life performance and optimizations of the native Maemo release. Since improvements in alpha 2 are focused on performance, users will need to run this Fennec version on Nokia’s N810 Internet Tablet to actually see the performance enhancements.

Mozilla hinted that the final release will run on a much broader array of mobile platforms – and include products such as e-paper devices. Fennec will also run under Windows Mobile and Symbian, currently under development, and possibly Android devices as well. This will enable owners of compatible handsets to choose Fennec over a default browser, giving Fennec access to over two thirds of the entire mobile market. Given Apple’s tight policies that shut out applications that compete with built-in iPhone software, it is unlikely that Fennec will replace Apple’s Safari browser any time soon.