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Mozilla toys with Firefox on iPhone after years of snubbing iOS

Gregg Keizer | Dec. 4, 2014
A Mozilla manager yesterday said that the open-source developer would create a browser for Apple's iOS, the mobile operating system that powers the iPhone and iPad.

Last March, Mozilla abruptly killed Firefox for Windows 8, giving it the ax just days before it was to ship and explaining its decision by pointing to anemic usage numbers for the pre-release builds. "When I talk about the need to pick our battles, this feels like a bad one to pick: significant investment and low impact," Nightingale said at the time.

Later, the engineer who had led the Modern Firefox project countered, saying that it was Microsoft's own rules about default browser assignment that doomed Mozilla's work.

Mozilla will have to work under even more onerous restrictions than those it encountered with Microsoft if it delves into iOS. Its use of the phrase "Firefox-like" today hinted that the browser would be a WebKit-based app enclosed with a Firefox-style user interface (UI) wrapper.

The reasons for Mozilla's renewed interest in iOS may have stemmed from Firefox's decline in browser user share and the sluggish growth in usage share as measured by analytics firms Net Applications and StatCounter. Over the last 12 months, Firefox has shed 26% of its desktop user share (by Net Applications' count) and grown by just 2% in desktop usage share (StatCounter).

Mozilla has put its shoulder behind other mobile initiatives. But Firefox OS, an open-source mobile operating system based on the browser, has not yet paid off and its Firefox browser for Android hasn't moved the needle. According to StatCounter, Firefox's usage share on mobile was just 0.4% last month, about the same it was a year ago.

Apple's iOS, while far behind Android in shipments, has long had a reputation as the OS that generates the largest share of mobile browsing. Mozilla would like to tap into that ecosystem if it could.

Mozilla's recent deals with Yahoo and its own ad project may have also played a part in its reconsideration of iOS. Without Firefox on iOS, Yahoo will not be getting Firefox-generated search requests from the 42% of U.S. smartphone owners who have an iPhone. And Firefox's new in-browser ad platform, which debuted on the desktop last month, is locked out of Apple's more affluent customers, a lucrative target for advertisers.

 

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