Does Firefox have a future on smartphones?

A seamless browsing experience across PC and mobile devices could help counter Firefox's distribution channel issues

Mozilla announced the availability of a mobile Firefox browser for Nokia smartphones built off the Maemo platform. Reading this news, I began to wonder if Firefox has as bright a future on smartphones as it does on PCs, laptops, and netbooks.

I'm a happy Firefox user on my PC and sometimes on my Mac, but browser market dynamics don't seem to be as advanced on mobile devices as they are on traditional PCs today. Users tend to use the native smartphone browser an order of magnitude more than they use the native browser on a PC, laptop, or netbook. If this trend continues, the leading mobile browser will be the browser shipped natively on the leading smartphone, with little room for a third-party browser to assert itself as a challenger or leader.

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Let's take a quick look at the native browsers on the leading smartphone platforms. Symbian, the No. 1 smartphone operating system by market share, builds its own browser. The BlackBerry, iPhone, Android, and Palm WebOS -- Nos. 2, 3, 5, and 6 in smartphone operating systems by market share, respectively -- all deliver native mobile browsers based on Webkit. (Well, BlackBerry doesn't yet, but RIM acquired a company that will help get RIM on the Webkit bandwagon in 2010.) Webkit is the competing browser rendering engine to Mozilla's Gecko engine at the heart of Firefox. The No. 4 smartphone operating system, Windows Mobile, not surprisingly ships a mobile IE browser.

Firefox is being shipped as the native browser on two of Nokia's high end N-series smartphones built off the Maemo platform. But the rest of Nokia's smartphones are built off the Symbian platform. Additionally, Nokia's success in the smartphone market is not a fait accompli, as the iPhone, BlackBerry, and Android are viewed to be growing at Nokia and Symbian's expense.

Mobile Firefox clearly faces an uphill battle for inclusion as the native browser on leading smartphones. However, I wouldn't write Firefox off in the smartphone arena just yet.

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