Firefox's mobile precursor gets extension support

Antecedent to Firefox Mobile graduates from alpha to a beta. Although Fennec is aimed at developers and supports only one mobile device, you can play with it on your PC's emulator.

Fennec logo

In October, I took a look at Mozilla Fennec, the precursor to the mobile version of Firefox that is sure to make a huge splash in the mobile-browsing world, once it's released to the salivating crowds.

The graduation of Fennec from alpha to beta 1 means that Mozilla is a milestone closer to bringing its vision to the world. For now, however, Fennec remains in code mode, released as a mobile and desktop test version for developers, and for others who want to give it a spin and spoon Mozilla some feedback.

Consistent with Fennec alpha, the mobile installation of Fennec beta is compatible only with the Nokia N810 Internet Tablet (over-the-air installation link).

Luckily, you don't have to be among this sliver of the populace to partake of the good news. Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux users can also download emulators to give Fennec beta 1 a try.

Fennec beta 1 add-on support
The precursor to Firefox Mobile now supports add-ons. (Credit: CNET)

What's new in Fennec beta 1

The biggest news by far is Fennec's support for add-ons. As mobile browsers converge more and more with the desktop experience, the mobile browser with the best add-on implementation will get a leg up. Desktop extensions were a vital ingredient to Firefox's success among mainstream users, and they stand a good chance of pitching Firefox Mobile against Opera Mobile, too.

Opera Software's desktop browser, though a solid program with its own library of plug-ins--called Widgets--has never gained the market share it needed to seriously contend with Firefox on the desktop. However, Opera is already well-established on mobile phones, and it was the first browser maker to bring its version of extensions over to the mobile side when it introduced Opera Widgets in October in the Opera 9.5 beta 2 release.

Mozilla's encouragement for Fennec developers to test existing Firefox extensions in Fennec beta 1, and to create new ones explicitly for the mobile framework, could easily apply some pressure.

Beyond extensions, Mozilla explores some richer bookmark maintenance in Fennec's beta 1. While flagging sites had been available in the alpha releases, editing a bookmark folder is a new development.

Finally, Mozilla cites a new JavaScript engine, called TraceMonkey, as a performance-boosting addition to Fennec. TraceMonkey dovetails with other back-end boosts to help the browser zoom, pan, and start up faster.

Fennec beta 1 on PC emulator
Fun with Fennec's tabs on the Windows emulator. (Credit: CNET)

While you won't get the authentic feel of Fennec's touch-screen commands from the Windows download, navigating with the mouse and emulator will have to do for most, until Mozilla gives us a mobile Firefox we can play with on more than just the favored Nokia tablet.

According to Mozilla, a beta version for Windows mobile is in the works for later in the year, and the hope is to make Fennec available for all to try by the end of 2009.

Read Mozilla's full release notes here.

About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.