Firefox finally fires up on the iPhone

After years of rejecting the notion, Mozilla tries to move its mobile browser share meter off the 1% mark

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Al Sacco

Mozilla on Thursday launched Firefox for iOS, the browser it long loved to resist coding.

Firefox can be found today in Apple's App Store.

"Firefox for iOS lets you take your favorite browser with you wherever you go with the Firefox features you already love," said Nick Nguyen, vice president of Firefox, in a post to a company blog Thursday.

The browser, which engineers at the open-source developer have been working on since at least last December, is another attempt by Mozilla to crack the mobile market. Firefox for Android, issued in 2011, has failed to gain meaningful traction, with a user share of the mobile browser market of less than 1%. Meanwhile, the goliaths -- Safari and Chrome -- accounted for 41% and 37%, respectively.

Mozilla had long refused to create Firefox on 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. On the desktop, Mozilla relies on its own technologies for both.

Firefox for ios Mozilla

After six years of refusing to put Firefox on the iPhone, Mozilla gave in today: The browser is built atop Apple's own rendering and JavaScript engines, requirements to make it into the App Store.

As far back as 2009, Mozilla executives had dismissed the idea of putting Firefox on iOS. A year later, the firm reiterated its stance. "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 in 2010.

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

That changed last year when Lukas Blakk, then the release manager for Firefox, tweeted, "We need to be where our users are so we're going to get Firefox on iOS." Blakk is now at Pinterest.

The user share tumble of Firefox for personal computers -- Mozilla's flagship and the generator of more than 90% of its revenue -- may have had something to do with the turn-about on iOS. In 2014, Firefox on personal computers shed 6.4 percentage points of user share, losing 35% of its user share during those 12 months.

Firefox's contraction has continued. So far in 2015, the browser has lost another six-tenths of a percentage point, ending October at 11.3%, the lowest mark since August 2006.

Firefox on iOS will have no performance advantage over the default Safari because of Apple's rules, but Mozilla hopes that fans of its desktop browser will use the iOS version to synchronize bookmarks, tabs and site passwords between there and an iPhone or iPad.

Mozilla has also aggressively promoted the privacy tools it's baked into Firefox on the desktop. Some of those made it into the iOS edition, although not what Mozilla calls "Tracking Protection," which on other platforms -- including Android, OS X and Windows -- blocks user tracking done by online advertisements and analytics tools.

Firefox for iOS can be downloaded from the App Store.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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