What's going on with Firefox for Android?

More than three months after Mozilla unveiled the first stages of its Android browser reboot, the native version of Firefox for Android remains a work in progress.

A proposed design for menu options in Firefox for Android's in-progress Reader Mode, which strips away ads and browser design to emphasize the text of a lengthy article. (Credit: Mozilla)

The new year started strong for Firefox on Android, as it relaunched with a completely new interface native to Android. Three months on, though, and it's still not ready for prime time.

The decision came toward the end of 2011: in order to create a more seamless Firefox on Android experience, Mozilla would scrap its then-current Android browser, built in XUL, and rebuild it with native Android code. The look and basic functionality debuted on January 3, but since then the new interface has missed two ship dates on Mozilla's six-week rapid-release cycle. So where does it stand now?

In some ways, much progress has been made. Firefox 13 Aurora for Android (download) has made some significant advances. Right out of the gate, the first developer's release of the new interface was faster than the stable version. Less than a month later, Firefox Sync landed in the Aurora build, re-establishing Firefox's tool for instantly sending personal data such as settings, history, bookmarks, and passwords between browsers.

Mozilla itself notes that the browser is moving "at a quick pace," wrote a Mozilla representative in an e-mail to CNET. "Start-up time has been significantly improved, Flash is now supported, and we've reduced memory usage, to name just a few improvements." Another development is the addition of a "reader" feature. Currently well-received in browsers such as the desktop Safari and the mobile Dolphin, Reader Mode streamlines an article or gallery and temporarily hides much of the browser "chrome," the visible bits of the interface.

So, claims of significant improvements are not without merit. The performance gains are noticeable even to the naked eye, and they're backed up by at least one internal Mozilla tool that's available to the public.

The new Start page also has cleaned up its act.
The new native Android UI for Firefox, currently only available in Nightly and Aurora builds. (Credit: Mozilla)

However, despite the improvements, Mozilla is still unwilling to publicly commit to a timeframe for when the Aurora build will migrate to the beta channel. "Feedback from Nightly and Aurora users has been extremely positive, and we will ship a beta product once we've completed development and testing," said the Mozilla representative.

There have been some serious snags, too. Mozilla has suffered yet another high-profile senior personnel departure, and the native browser's development hasn't been without flaws. While Sync did debut soon after the first build of the new version went public, it has functioned erratically at times. At other points, the browser would re-open the last-closed tab whenever returning to Firefox Aurora from another app, or would take minutes to open the bookmarks and top sites pages.

To be fair, many of those problems are "how your browser sausage gets made," issues, things that will likely be resolved before it's ready for a wider release. They are indicative, though, of the challenges in rapidly rebuilding a mobile browser.

Mozilla has also just taken a controversial step to ensure that its mobile browser remains competitive on the extremely important point of in-browser video. After much resistance, the company finally decided to begin supporting the H.264 codec. My colleague Stephen Shankland wrote about why the H.264 debate is important, but it basically has to do with supporting the Web as it is versus upholding Mozilla's "open Web" ideals.

Despite various setbacks, Firefox developer Irina Sandu wrote on her blog last week that the browser is expected to move to beta "pretty soon." Neither she nor anyone else at Mozilla would provide indication of when that will be, and that's in no small part because the non-profit company conducts all of its business in public view, with copious public logs and blogs of meetings and ongoing development.

Whether the native Android UI build of Firefox earns its approval before the end of the month and the end of the first quarter of 2012, or into April or even beyond, is anybody's guess.