New look, faster browsing as Firefox returns to Android

Nearly a year in the making, Mozilla unveils a new approach to Firefox for Android with a new interface, faster page-loading, and Flash support.

Firefox for Android changes course, goes native

The first major update to Firefox for Android (download) since January has arrived, and it brings with it a new interface, some new features, and a new approach to Android for Mozilla.

The company released the first stable version of Firefox for Android at the same time that it overhauled Firefox for PCs, back in March 2011. Barely six months after that, the company decided that the original Firefox for Android just wasn't good enough. With a responsiveness rarely seen by large organizations, Mozilla changed course and began to work on a different Android browser.

"In the fall of last year, we realized [the original Firefox for Android] was not good enough, not performing the way we wanted it to," Johnathan Nightingale, Mozilla's director of Firefox engineering, explained over the phone yesterday. "So we made the call in October to rewrite it."

The new version of Firefox for Android continues the version numbering scheme that Mozilla has been pursuing since March 2011's debut of the rapid release cycle -- it's listed as version 14 -- but Nightingale confessed that it's really a new 1.0. More went into the browser, he said, than just building the interface on native code.

"Re-writing the native UI we knew would take three to four months, which gave us the instant start up," he said. The old Firefox for Android suffered from a severe lag from when you tapped its icon to the point where the browser finished loading. But, Nightingale said, "the panning and zooming performance required building a whole new architecture."

Additional problems included Adobe Flash integration. Nightingale said that Firefox engineers knew Flash had to be supported, because so many people who used Firefox were asking for it and because it was still used on a majority of sites that offer rich-media content. However, he said, coding Flash support for Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is different than it is for Android 2.3 Gingerbread and Android 2.2 Froyo, all three of which are different from Android 3.0 Honeycomb.

Firefox 14 for Android includes Flash support, as well as tap-to-play for plug-ins. This lets a site load with a tappable icon for playing the Flash content at will. It's beneficial both for faster page loading and for cutting down on bandwidth usage during these data capped times.

Many of the previous version's feature have been built into the new version. There's Firefox Sync; a smooth and effortless in-page zoom; support for the Do Not Track header and add-ons; and excellent HTML5, CSS3, and hardware API support, which position Firefox for Android well for the future and feed into Mozilla's Boot to Gecko mobile operating system project, Nightingale said.

There are some notable features that competitors offer that are not in Firefox for Android. Dolphin HD is known for its gestures and slick voice integration, while Opera's Turbo is a real boon to those on sluggish connections. You can check out CNET's full review of Firefox 14 for Android here.

Nightingale dished a bit on what's coming for Firefox on Android, which anybody can check out in the browser's Nightly and Aurora builds. A "Readability" mode for streamlined article reading just landed in the Nightly build, and text selection is also a priority, he said. Sync will be getting a push-to-device option so that you can instantly send a URL to Firefox for Android, which is based on the same code as the Fox to Phone add-on.

Finally, a version of Firefox optimized for tablets is in the works, but ongoing struggles with supporting Flash on Honeycomb are delaying its release. And while Mozilla's design team recently demonstrated some concepts for a Firefox-branded iPad browser called Junior, Nightingale dashed hopes of seeing it on your Apple tablet anytime soon.

"Junior is not on an engineer track yet," he said. "It's just something the user experience prototyping team showing off what they'd been playing with. It was more protoypey than was given credit for."

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