Minimo: Firefox's little cousin

It's not Firefox, but Mozilla's fairly fleet-footed mobile Web browser does its share to get you online. CNET's Jessica Dolcourt tested out Minimo and chatted with Doug Turner, the project's lead developer.

Minimo

Your Minimo Web journey begins at Homebase.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

Weary of mobile browsers that act like every other desktop browser, only shrunken to fit a smaller screen, browser-smiths are endeavoring to make Web interfaces a little more interesting. iPhone (see CNET's coverage) is the obvious rock star of the moment with its touch screen browser, and yesterday I reviewed Yahoo Go 2.0 Beta, the next generation of Yahoo's mobile delivery method for sampling the company's core Web services.

Today's lucky winner is Mozilla's Minimo, an open source mobile browser that acquired its name not from the more renowned Firefox browser, but from Mozilla's much earlier project. As one Minimo forums moderator quipped, "It ain't Firefox..."

I had a little chat with Doug Turner, Minimo's lead developer, to get a little perspective on Minimo's origins and what you can expect (you can also skip to the hands-on review). Minimo, which is short for Mini Mozilla, began in 1999, well before Firefox's inception. "We were two or three people," Turner said, "trying to create a good browser on the Mozilla product." Not just any browser, though. Turner and team envisioned building a browser much smaller, lighter, faster, and more extensible than Mozilla.

Originally an experiment intended for benefiting enterprise customers, Turner and his team began thinking of Minimo as a consumer product and started building out the user interface. The engine, based on Firefox 2, is still being put to good use as the browser for the Nokia N800 Internet Tablet. For end users like you and me, Minimo's browser graphics are easy on the eye, but according to Turner, users' main focus should be on customizing their experience through the open source code.

"It's an open platform," Turner explained. "You can change the look and feel, add extensions...The interface is all defined in XML and Javascript, so anyone who can program a Web page--and that's a lot of people now--can change Minimo, and Firefox too."

Minimo navigation features

Navigation buttons enlarge screen text and toggle an address field on and off.

(Credit: CNET Networks)

However, if you aren't prepared to tinker with code, here's a look at Minimo's performance in a hands-on assessment.

In my tests on the Treo 700 running Windows Mobile 5 (Minimo is compatible with versions 5 and 6), Minimo circled a few moments before settling down. I can only assume that the Treo's dial-up connection had something to do with the lag and that well-connected WiFi users should experience more swiftness.

In Minimo, everything begins with Homebase, a home page and portal. The top of the screen wastes no space with the navigation, devoting the upper screen to an address field, Google search bar, and links to Mocomo directory and Del.icio.us mobile sites. A scroll bar takes you lower to icons for map browsing, Google mobile search, and the weather. Below sits a short history of hyperlinked URLs.

Casting your gaze further south, you finally see the browser's navigation, an immediately noticeable difference in Minimo's browsing experience. The nav is equipped with familiar forward, back and refresh buttons, but also buttons to enlarge and minimize screen text, a crucial ergonomic service for giving the eyes--and upper back--a break from squinting and craning. Other default navigation includes a pan arrow that lets your stylus cruise around the screen (though an accidental tap disables the feature) and an "at" symbol that displays the URL of a given page. Finally, an ellipses symbol calls up controls for preferences, bookmarking, and quick-nav destinations.

While most mobile browsers navigate away from the home page, Minimo locks its down by default, keeping its Homebase tab open throughout the session. Clicking a link or entering a URL simply loads the page into a new tab. The home page and other customizations like theme color, privacy, and proxy status, can be tailored in the preferences. The controls and preferences are adequate, but by no means exhausted. For example, I'd like to be able to enter a URL through the control panel as well as through the "@" and via Homebase.

In terms of use, Minimo creates a fairly straightforward, totally capable browsing experience. I wouldn't call it revolutionary, especially when the technology is currently limited to owners of Pocket PCs, Smartphones, and Palms running Windows Mobile 5 and 6. Windows Mobile 4.2 users can downgrade to an earlier version. If you've got one of the magic handsets, see if Minomo's layout takes your fancy. Otherwise--and this applies to cell phone users in particular--try Opera Mini, which works on many more devices.

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