Nokia Funds Mozilla Mobile Browser
By Carlo Longino, Fri Jun 18 16:30:00 GMT 2004

The phone giant has thrown a lifeline to the open-source project, injecting cash to support the development of a mobile-phone Web browser.

Mozilla has struggled with complaints about its software, uncertain corporate backing and a bunch of layoffs over the past several years, but the Nokia deal (which evidently happened last year) is a potential model for the financial viability of the non-profit, as well as other open-source groups. Nokia's essentially outsourced the research on the project to Mozilla, which will then tailor its efforts to meet Nokia's needs, but still open-source the results.

The deal could be a blow to Opera, which has emerged as the preferred browser for Symbian smartphones, and which has been included on some Nokia devices. It's something of a double blow for Opera, as Nokia said earlier this week the new version of Series 60 would include an HTML browser, calling into question whether the bundling of Opera on Nokia handsets will continue.

The Mozilla project -- dubbed "Minimo" -- will have its work cut out for it to compete with Opera's gargantuan lead, built on its successful small-screen rendering technology. But using an open-source browser on a mobile device, particularly in an environment open to third-party developers, creates some interesting possibilities.

There's a vast array of extensions and add-ons available for Mozilla's browsers, and the ease with which outside developers can create and integrate these enhancements to the software is certainly one of its strengths. These extensions change the look and feel of the browser, add shortcuts to search engines and let people customize the functionality of their browsers to fit their needs. It's this feature that gives Minimo a strong chance of success.

Application development on smartphone OSes like Palm, Symbian and Windows Mobile is booming, and it's the ability to add outside applications that makes smartphone platforms so compelling. While Opera's got the best mobile browser available at this point, Minimo will give it some strong competition and necessitate continual improvement to its product. But the additional functionality that Minimo's open-source nature can facilitate dovetails nicely with the growing smartphone developer community, and shifts some of the burden of innovation away from Mozilla, and allows developers to quickly improve the product.

The upside for Nokia here is that for an initial outlay, they'll then have a free browser to install on their phones with an independent, external developer community to improve and enhance the product. In the short run, however, Opera should continue to be the dominant mobile browser, and continue to be included on Nokia phones. It has a massive head start, but must keep up the rapid pace of development and innovation it's been able to produce with no competition -- just ask Netscape what happens when you can't.