Could There Be an AndroidFox?

Google's Linux-based mobile operating system — Android — has become a popular choice for phonemakers worldwide. Now, if Firefox developers are getting what they think they are, we may finally see the combination of Google's power OS with Mozilla's groundbreaking browser

The Android-powered G1 been a smash hit for T-Mobile, spawning a second generation of Android phones from the provider, due out in August. The OS is beginning to make appearances on other manufacturer's handsets, and is even being ported to power a new generation of netbooks.

The one limitation — or, at least, the most often intoned — is the limited access applications have to the device. Though the undercarriage is Linux, Android implements a Java virtual machine, a sort of sandbox in which all applications must run. For most application developers, it would seem, this handicap is of little concern — the Android Market is teeming with options, everything from SSH clients and headline news to pool and pickup lines. The inability to run native code, however, does hamper some "heavier" applications, and no doubt the operating system would pack an even greater punch with their inclusion.

Perhaps chief among the heavyweights barred from Android's ring is Firefox, the superstar among Open-Source browsers and second only to "that other browser" in market share. Because of the code limitations, Mozilla has focused on bringing its Fennec mobile browser to other platforms. Speaking last year on the subject of Firefox for Android, then-engineering VP Mike Schroepfer commented that while he looked forward to Android being opened for wider development, the Firefox development team's attention was directed elsewhere because the platform "already has a capable browser of its own." Android's existing browser is a WebKit-powered offering described as similar to Google's Chrome browser for the desktop.

This may be changing, however, as Google has announced an Android Native Development Kit that will allow applications native code to run on the Linux level, rather than in the Java sandbox. According to the announcement, posted Thursday morning by Google Senior Software Engineer David Turner, the Native Development Kit (NDK) will provide:

  • a set of tools and build files used to generate native code libraries from C and C++ sources.
  • a way to embed the corresponding native libraries into application packages files (.apks) that can be deployed on Android devices.
  • a set of native system headers and libraries that will be supported in all future releases of the Android platform, starting from Android 1.5 documentation, samples and tutorials.
  • support for the ARMv5TE machine instruction set and provides stable headers for:
    • libc, the standard C library
    • libm, the standard math library
    • the JNI interface
    • libz, the common ZLib compression library
    • liblog, used to send logcat messages to the kernel

Mozilla's Mobile VP, Jay Sullivan, told reporters that Firefox developers are giving the Android NDK a good going-over to determine if its added features are enough to support the trimmed-down mobile Firefox. "If it's possible, I think our community would be interested in doing it, because Android will be appearing on more smartphones with the capabilities to provide a good browsing experience."

Android or not, Fennec development is moving forward. Two new builds were released on Friday: a second beta for the Maemo platform, and a second alpha for Windows Mobile. Developers report that the browser's user interface has been heavily improved, and gains have been made in both performance and responsiveness. Changes to the add-on system and download manager have also been incorporated. Windows, Mac, and Linux desktop builds are also available.

In related news, Mozilla has scheduled the release the next generation of Firefox on the desktop — Firefox 3.5 — for tomorrow, according to a blog post by Mozilla marketer Mary Colvig. The release — originally intended to be Firefox 3.1, with far fewer large-scale changes — has been eagerly anticipated, particularly due to the repeated postponements. The browser-to-come has undergone a number of transformations, adding scores of new features and dramatically overhauling its performance.

Even this week, with release candidates posted, major changes were underway, including a "really really cool" change to the way users will upgrade to 3.5. World records aside, Mozilla is likely setting up extra servers to handle the traffic, if they haven't done so already — if the release is anything like the last one, the traffic logs will be a sight to behold.

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