Mozilla toys with Firefox on iPhone after years of snubbing iOS

Apple's rules on browsers will require Mozilla to use Safari's rendering and JavaScript engines on mobile

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A Mozilla manager yesterday said that the open-source developer would create a browser for Apple's iOS, the mobile operating system that powers the iPhone and iPad.

"We need to be where our users are so we're going to get Firefox on iOS," said Lukas Blakk, the release manager for Firefox, in a Tuesday tweet.

It wasn't clear whether Blakk was repeating a pledge made by another official at Mozilla or speaking on his own behalf. Blakk tweeted the comment from Mozlandia, a company-only conference held this week in Portland, Ore., where executives, including CEO Chris Beard and head of Firefox Johnathan Nightingale, spoke on stage. Blakk may have simply been repeating what someone else in the company said at Mozlandia.

On Wednesday, Mozilla confirmed Blakk's tweet.

"We are in the early stages of experimenting with something that allows iOS users to be able to choose a Firefox-like experience," the company said in a brief blog post. "We'll update you when we have more to share." Mozilla declined to comment further or answer questions, including whether it has a timetable in mind.

Mozilla has resisted developing Firefox for iOS because of Apple's strict rules: The only browsers Apple allows into the App Store are those built atop its own rendering and JavaScript engines. Mozilla relies on its own technologies for both.

If Mozilla does craft an iOS version of Firefox -- Apple's rules notwithstanding -- it would be a turnabout from years of rejecting the idea.

As far back as 2009, Mozilla's then-CEO John Lilly said the company would be very unlikely to offer Firefox on iOS. Again in 2010, Mozilla reiterated its iOS position. "There are technical and logistical restrictions that make it difficult, if not impossible, to build the full Firefox browser for the iPhone," Ragavan Srinivasan, a product manager at Mozilla, said then.

Instead, Mozilla created Firefox Home for iOS. That spin-off of its bookmark and tab synchronization technology was canned in 2012; Mozilla cited worthier projects for the retrenchment.

And while Mozilla said in September 2010 that it was investigating the option of creating Firefox for the iPad, nothing came of that.

Other browser makers have ported their wares to iOS, including Google and Opera Software, which have released Chrome and Opera Coast, respectively. Their work was relatively easy since both use a variation of the WebKit rendering engine for all their browsers, which Apple also uses for its Safari line.

Safari is the default browser on iOS.

In the past, Mozilla has jumped into projects, but later discarded them. The most notable was a two-year effort to develop Firefox for Microsoft's "Modern," née "Metro," touch-centric environment, a hallmark of Windows 8.

Last March, Mozilla abruptly killed Firefox for Windows 8, giving it the ax just days before it was to ship and explaining its decision by pointing to anemic usage numbers for the pre-release builds. "When I talk about the need to pick our battles, this feels like a bad one to pick: significant investment and low impact," Nightingale said at the time.

Later, the engineer who had led the Modern Firefox project countered, saying that it was Microsoft's own rules about default browser assignment that doomed Mozilla's work.

Mozilla will have to work under even more onerous restrictions than those it encountered with Microsoft if it delves into iOS. Its use of the phrase "Firefox-like" today hinted that the browser would be a WebKit-based app enclosed with a Firefox-style user interface (UI) wrapper.

The reasons for Mozilla's renewed interest in iOS may have stemmed from Firefox's decline in browser user share and the sluggish growth in usage share as measured by analytics firms Net Applications and StatCounter. Over the last 12 months, Firefox has shed 26% of its desktop user share (by Net Applications' count) and grown by just 2% in desktop usage share (StatCounter).

Mozilla has put its shoulder behind other mobile initiatives. But Firefox OS, an open-source mobile operating system based on the browser, has not yet paid off and its Firefox browser for Android hasn't moved the needle. According to StatCounter, Firefox's usage share on mobile was just 0.4% last month, about the same it was a year ago.

Apple's iOS, while far behind Android in shipments, has long had a reputation as the OS that generates the largest share of mobile browsing. Mozilla would like to tap into that ecosystem if it could.

Mozilla's recent deals with Yahoo and its own ad project may have also played a part in its reconsideration of iOS. Without Firefox on iOS, Yahoo will not be getting Firefox-generated search requests from the 42% of U.S. smartphone owners who have an iPhone. And Firefox's new in-browser ad platform, which debuted on the desktop last month, is locked out of Apple's more affluent customers, a lucrative target for advertisers.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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