Microsoft’s choice not to provide a migration path for mobile apps developers to move their native code from Windows Mobile 6.5 to Windows Phone 7 (with one notable exception), has claimed its biggest casualty to date: Mozilla, whose Firefox Mobile project, codenamed “Fennec,” appeared to be the most promising alternative browser to IE Mobile, will discontinue development for all Microsoft handset platforms including Windows Mobile 6.5. This announcement was made yesterday by Mozilla mobile project leader Stuart Parmenter.
It wasn’t so much a decision on Mozilla’s part, Parmenter noted yesterday, as a reluctant acceptance of the fact that it can’t be done.
“While we think Windows Phone 7 looks interesting and has the potential to do well in the market, Microsoft has unfortunately decided to close off development to native applications,” he wrote. “Because of this, we won’t be able to provide Firefox for Windows Phone 7 at this time. Given that Microsoft is staking their future in mobile on Windows Mobile 7 (not 6.5) and because we don’t know if or when Microsoft will release a native development kit, we are putting our Windows Mobile development on hold.”
That may be good news for Opera, perhaps the leading cross-platform mobile browser maker now. Opera’s latest Mini and Mobile versions, for Windows Mobile 6.5 among others, was released just last week.
For the last few years, Microsoft’s concept of an ecosystem with respect to Windows Mobile has centered around its participating mobile operators, the various phone manufacturers, and the handset distribution channel. This actually has not changed with the redirection toward Windows Phone 7 Series, although there now appears to be some reinforcement to the wall protecting the sandbox for apps developers. Silverlight is the mobile apps development platform of choice, thus blocking off the access to native functionality required for building something as central to core functionality as a Web browser.
But, as I mentioned, there’s one notable exception: As Adobe developer relations chief Mike Chambers confirmed prior to Microsoft’s MIX conference in Las Vegas, Flash is being treated as a third-party native application. In a quick blog post on March 9, Chambers wrote (in all italics so no one would miss it), “Adobe and Microsoft are working together to bring Flash Player 10.1 to Internet Explorer Mobile on Windows Phone 7 Series.”
That announcement came one week prior to Microsoft’s confirmation to journalist Tim Anderson (who, unlike others…asked) that native access to the WP7S core would otherwise be sealed off. As Anderson wrote on his own blog, “I suspect that Microsoft is chasing the Flash checkbox to one-up Apple; but if Adobe gets native access, others will no doubt follow.”
Maybe, but following takes time, and not everyone has that in abundance — nor do they have executives who can negotiate for time on their behalf.
The absence of Firefox on WP7S will also very likely mean the absence of Opera on that platform as well. Thus, unlike the case with BlackBerry (whose internal Web browser to date is more reminiscent of IE3) where alternatives abound, the capabilities of the browser in WP7S will be critical for 3G users comparing overall performance — the kind that they can see.
Early disassembly of the Windows Phone virtual machine now being distributed free for developers revealed a native Web browser whose core was based on Internet Explorer 7. Product managers at MIX last week told reporters, including Network World‘s John Cox, that although IE7 was the core that WP7S engineers are using as their base, they would expand upon that base using elements of IE8.
They also deflected Cox’s attention toward IE9, leading to a report that was misinterpreted by bloggers as having said Microsoft would fold IE9 elements into the browser code base as well. This was inaccurate, as a clear read of Cox’s report clearly states that the Microsoft managers with whom he spoke could not even say for certain whether the final IE browser for WP7S would run apps for Silverlight (the operating system’s own native apps platform) or Flash, despite Adobe’s Chambers’ pre-emptive strike the week before.
Closing off third-party native apps (other than Flash) will also result in fewer opportunities for browsers that are also platforms in themselves, to create mini-ecosystems of their own, in lieu of real ones from the OS maker. One of the last status reports from the Fennec development team included video showing Firefox and Firefox Mobile add-ins successfully operating on the Fennec alpha platform in Windows Mobile. One such add-in would have synchronized active Firefox desktop sessions, including bookmarks and open tabs, with Fennec sessions.
The Mozilla team is already prohibited by Apple for developing a Fennec browser for the iPhone, since it violates Apple’s developers’ terms. Those terms state that iPhone apps cannot be platforms in themselves. That little fact, however, won’t stop Opera from trying.