Browser Wars: Firefox Fights Back

Have you heard of Aurora? This is basically Future Firefox, an experimental version of the great independent browser from Mozilla. Not a beta, because it’s not a test version of a coming product; more a testbed for ideas that might be included soon.

So you can’t say every feature it displays will end up in Firefox. Some though I’m pretty certain will – at least when it comes to the Android version. Particularly the way Aurora now responds to hover events, so things like dropdown menus work when you pass a mouse pointer over them.

What should I care, you may ask, when my phone doesn’t have a mouse pointer? Actually it probably could… A lot of Androids will let you plug in a mouse (and indeed a keyboard, external drive, or other peripherals) if you use a USB host adapter, and there are Bluetooth mice too. More importantly though, it helps Android adapt to a greater variety of hardware: tablets with and without pens, laptops, even desktop devices. I have no doubt that in a couple of years Android will be seen as a serious alternative to Windows for a lot of work situations.

Another good thing about this desktop-like ability in a browser is that it helps close a gap threatening to open between the desktop and mobile Web. Sure, mobile sites have their uses, especially on smaller screens. But they will nearly always be simplified versions offering less control, and it would be hugely frustrating if your browser wasn’t capable of switching to the full version when needed.

And certainly, no one should ever be forced into using an app just because their phone can’t handle a website.

My new default browser then? Nope. Aurora is in no way intended for primetime. It has some really weird bugs, a predictable consequence of throwing in new features to see what happens, and quickly becomes frustrating to use. But proper Firefox for mobile is pretty good. It has perhaps the most attractive look of any Android browser, and it’s been very stable. Certainly try this. Or if you want to be a bit brave, there’s a good beta version that has some of the more stable of the new features.

Aurora also test-runs a “reader mode”, for when you don’t care about the fancy bits of a website

But if I praise Mozilla here, it’s with faint damns. The reason I’m so certain this feature will make it into Firefox for Android is that every single major rival has it already. The standard Android browser, Chrome for Android, Dolphin HD, even Opera Mobile.

All of them have their own foibles and bugs too; desktop-class browsing on a phone is obviously no walkover. Opera I regard as too eccentric to be really usable now. Try to upload an image with it, for example, and it will use its own non-graphical file explorer instead of Android’s image gallery. How many of your photographs do you know by name? Dolphin is a browser designed exclusively for mobile devices and there is a lot to recommend it, but it feels more orientated to smaller screens. The Android native browser gets better all the time, and now features a full screen mode and a thumb-friendly menu system, but can seem a little flaky.

The leader still though is Google’s Chrome for Android. I’ve raved about it before, so I’ll restrict myself to happily reporting that its chief weakness – a regrettable tendency to crash if you look at it sideways – does seem to have been fixed in Android 4.0.4.

It’s maybe not surprising that Google’s product is doing well. It’s got Google’s money behind it after all, and Google’s ambition. But Mozilla have their own ambition now, and though it’s been taking them far too long, they do look to be on their way to producing a serious mobile contender.

Chrome. Beautiful, Brittle

Good news if you’re using an Android phone or tablet. The mobile version of the Chrome browser, about which I have raved before, has finally been officially released. Chrome handles complex modern sites better than anything else available for mobile, a distinct advantage for the Android platform over iPhone. If you have a decently big screen you can enjoy an experience almost indistinguishable from a desktop browser, using real websites instead of over-simple mobile versions or apps. The illusion becomes perfect on the Galaxy Note, as hovering the pen near to the screen triggers “mouseover” events like dropdown menus, just as on a desktop computer – and just as I’d hoped.

All right, it doesn’t have Flash. This is Adobe’s (and ultimately, Apple’s) fault rather than Google’s though, and there should be a plug-in to fix it soon. It still seems to lack any full-screen mode too. But in every other respect it outclasses the competition, from Google’s own default mobile browser to even the likes of Dolphin HD. Naturally it still has that lovely playing-card interface, it’s as neat and simple as any Chrome variant, and it’s fast. Remember, this is coming from someone who vastly prefers Firefox on the desktop, both for its features and for its independence. Firefox for mobile is getting very good, but this leaves it standing.

Really just one thing stops me from telling you to go install Chrome for Android directly without passing Go or collecting two hundred euros. This would be its slight tendency to crash every five f***ing minutes. Seriously, it happened so many times while I was writing this that I’ve given up and am completing it in Jota. I’m enormously disappointed. I was hoping that the final release would fix the instability that plagued the beta. You know what? It’s actually worse.

I still suggest you download this, even try it as your default browser. It is that nice. I just wouldn’t recommend you use it to write anything longer than a Tweet.

Really Google, what the hell?