Mozilla is planning a makeover for Firefox on Android. The company has announced it plans to abandon the usual Firefox look on Android mobile devices and will instead use Android’s native user interface widgets.
Switching to native widgets on Android will mean a faster, more responsive mobile browser, but it might also make for a Firefox no one recognizes.
Under the hood Firefox for Android will still use the Gecko rendering engine, but without the XUL interface that powers Firefox on every other platform, Firefox for Android might be missing its familiar look.
XUL, which comes from the mouth-twisting phrase eXtensible User interface Language, was originally developed so that Firefox could have a similar interface across platforms. That is, with a few tweaks to Gecko, Firefox can easily move from Windows to Mac to Linux and back while maintaining a reasonably consistent appearance. Behind the scenes XUL means that Firefox has to do some extra work to draw itself on the screen, but on the desktop it’s hardly noticeable.
However, on mobile platforms, where memory and processors are still very limited, XUL is slowing Firefox down.
Writing on the Mozilla Mobile Platforms mailing list, Johnathan Nightingale, Director of Firefox Engineering, says that the move to a native Android interface will mean faster startup times, significantly less memory usage and a much snappier user interface — particularly when performing common mobile tasks like zooming and panning.
Of course everything in software is a trade off and the significant downside to using native elements for Firefox on Android is the possible loss of XUL-dependant add-ons. Nightingale says that the mobile team is working with the add-on team to find a solution, but so far nothing has been decided for sure. One possible solution would be to use native widgets for the main Firefox interface elements, but keep XUL around under the hood so that add-ons could still function.
Another concern is that, without its familiar user interface, Firefox won’t really be any different than other Android browsers. Firefox developer Robert Kaiser writes that he believes a “Firefox with native Android UI won’t be very much better than the native Android browser.”
Asa Dotzler, community coordinator for Firefox, is more confident, claiming that Mozilla is “not bound by any technology,” and that, if it needs to, Mozilla can “make add-ons work with a native [Android] UI.”
Nightingale says that a decision regarding add-ons will be made in the next few weeks, but that “Firefox 8 and 9 will ship with the XUL UI,” including the new user interface for tablets, while work continues on the native Android version. In other words, the native version isn’t likely to arrive until Firefox 10 rolls around in 2012.
If you don’t want to wait that long there is already a branch of Firefox on Android using the native widgets. There’s no binary yet, but if you want to try it out you can grab the source and compile it yourself.
Photo: Johan Larsson/Flickr