Mozilla faces tough times in mobile browser space

Similar products from Opera and Microsoft mean the field is crowded

The newest version of Minimo, the Mozilla mobile browser, became available last week in the midst of changes within the Minimo project that make its future uncertain.

Minimo 0.2, available for free download, is compatible with Windows Mobile 5.0 and is smaller and faster than previous versions, according to early users who posted comments to a blog about the browser. It also supports GPS (Global Positioning System), a cleaner user interface and a start page that includes bookmarks and search. Minimo is designed to be an alternative to the browser that comes with Windows Mobile and its creators promote its speed in accessing sites and other features such as tabs, better security and support for widgets.

The Minimo project, which isn’t a Mozilla endeavour but is hosted by Mozilla.org, was one of the earliest third-party mobile browser initiatives but it seems to have been eclipsed by other developers, including Opera.

In 2004, when Minimo seemed promising, Nokia made a financial investment in the initiative. But, around the middle of 2004 users were posting questions to the Minimo forum asking if the project was still alive. By the following year, Nokia announced that it was developing its own browser, using open-source components from Apple’s Safari browser that would be used in its future smartphones.

Those ups and downs have been tied to financing, says Doug Turner, the leader of the project. “It is an open source project that has had some financial backing and, during those times we push hard. When there isn’t funding we keep it alive because it is something we use,” he says.

Now, even after the most recent release, the future of Minimo is unclear. In late December, Turner said he wouldn’t be dedicating much time to it in the future. “There are lots of browsers in the space, the market is tightly controlled by cellular operators and the end users aren’t using the browser,” he wrote on his blog. “This will change, but not for a few years.”

He points to a market share report that shows that all mobile browsers combined don’t add up to 1% of internet use.

Opera, which also offers a free browser for phones, including those running the newest mobile OS from Microsoft, Windows Mobile 6.0, has been attracting more and more users. In February there were 216,283 downloads of Opera’s browser for Windows Mobile Smartphones and Pocket PC editions, up from 142,502 in the same month last year, according to Opera.

Turner argues that Minimo has also held its own. In February it had 80,000 downloads of a version of the browser that has been around for eight months.

Minimo may end up heading in a different direction in order to better compete. In the blog posting referred to above, Turner wrote that “At the Firefox Summit, we had a brainstorming session that exposed some ideas that would help improve the lives of Firefox users who have mobile phones, without having to build a full browser for the mobile handset. Things that we could do in a few months, rather than many years.” He plans to continue flushing out these ideas in the coming months.

Both Minimo and Opera face renewed competition from Microsoft, which recently began previewing new technology that could be included in future versions of its mobile browser.

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