Mozilla is in informal talks with mobile operators about its mobile Firefox project, which the organization hopes will shake up the market as much as the introduction of the desktop browser did in 2004.
"Mozilla's mission is to break open a closed market," said Mike Schroepfer, Mozilla's vice president of engineering, during a visit to London earlier this week. But "it won't happen overnight."
The impact, however, will be felt before year's end. By then, Mozilla is aiming to release a mobile browser for two operating systems: embedded Linux and Microsoft's Windows Mobile.
At this point, operators and carriers "want to know how much it will cost," Schroepfer said. That's an easy answer: mobile Firefox will be free, Schroepfer said.
But the introduction of a free mobile browser is potentially threatening to some operators. Some handset manufacturers and carriers rigidly control applications and services, maximizing their revenue by creating so-called "walled gardens" where only their own for-fee services can be accessed.
Those carriers will have to be wooed to allow their subscribers to download mobile Firefox. "I think that some carriers will basically fight this kicking and screaming, and some will embrace it and move ahead quickly," said Christian Sejersen, who is head of Mozilla's mobile engineering group in Copenhagen.
Sejersen recently traveled to Japan and Korea to speak with manufacturers and operators. In Japan, operators said their subscribers transmit three to four times more data when allowed to browse the open Web than they do when kept in a walled garden. That opens the door for more data transmission revenue, but also could make operators merely a commoditized "pipe" to the Internet.
Mozilla is also counting on operators to help contribute to the development of mobile Firefox in the same way the open-source community lends its labor for the desktop browser, Sejersen said.
Nokia has already done this. Versions of the N800 tablet and N810, which both run on Linux, have a browser that utilizes Mozilla's Gecko rendering engine, used to layout Web pages. Nokia has also contributed code back to the community, Sejersen said.
Sejersen would like to see a greater proportion of developers contributing code to the mobile side.
"Companies are more interested in getting a product release for themselves," Sejersen said. "We will probably see a higher contribution level."
Mozilla has also stepped up its efforts, turning mobile Firefox into a full-fledged project. Five full-time engineers are working at the mobile development center in Copenhagen, and Mozilla is hiring more, Sejersen said. Copenhagen was chosen since Europe has strong mobile expertise, he said.
Mozilla is also seeing positive signs from manufacturers. Korean powerhouse Samsung has submitted suggestions for the user interface. Also, Mozilla is working with chip designers ARM and Intel to make mobile Firefox run well on their chips, Schroepfer said. Mobile Firefox will be designed to work on ARM 11 processors, Sejersen said.