Mozilla Brings Firefox Back to iOS

Firefox is now available in Apple's App Store, but it's not quite the same Firefox that exists anywhere else.

Firefox on iOS

At long last, the open-source Firefox Web browser is now available to Apple's iOS users, but it is a version that is missing one core element that every Firefox browser before it has always had.

For the first time in Mozilla's history, the company is releasing a full generally available browser that isn't powered by the open-source Gecko rendering engine. Firefox releases on Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and Android have always been powered by Gecko, but Apple's policies do not permit developers to use any rendering engine other than WebKit, which is used by Apple's Safari Web browser.

Today's release of Firefox for iOS is not the first time the Firefox name has been in Apple's App Store. In July 2010, Mozilla's first attempt, called Firefox Home, debuted in the App Store. Firefox Home was never a full browser, but rather a mechanism to enable users to synchronize browsing across devices. In 2012, Mozilla pulled the plug on Firefox Home and ceased development.

"We gained a lot of experience with our previous experiments and projects on iOS, which we learned from," Karen Rudnitski, senior product manager, Firefox Mobile at Mozilla, told eWEEK. "More recently, with the new functionality that opened up to developers in the release of iOS 8 onwards, we were able to take advantage of new opportunities to develop the kind of browsing experience our users expect from Firefox."

With the new Firefox for iOS release, Mozilla is taking an iOS native approach by embracing WebKit. Some browser vendors on iOS use a proxy, which is a tunnel that uses a remote backend to render Web content. Firefox runs over Webkit and does not employ a proxy service, Rudnitski said.

By using WebKit instead of Gecko, there are some differences between Firefox for iOS and Firefox running on Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and Android.

"Webkit and Gecko are different platforms and have their own capabilities," Rudnitski said. "This is the first worldwide version of Firefox for iOS, and since each platform has distinct user interfaces and experiences, it is therefore not at feature parity to Firefox for Android, Windows, Mac and Linux initially."

Mozilla is working hard to bring the most loved features that Firefox users expect to iOS in a way that best serves the needs of Mozilla's users and complies with Apple developer policies in an incremental manner, she said.

"We strive to integrate into each platform seamlessly and create an intuitive experience to all of our users, regardless of their chosen platform," Rudnitski said.

Mozilla's Firefox for Windows, Mac OS X and Android now all follow the same release cadence, with new versions available on the same day. The Firefox for iOS release cycle will likely not track that same path.

"Apple developer processes allow flexibility in creating a release cadence that best fits the needs of all apps in the App Store, including Firefox for iOS," Rudnitski said. "For that reason, it is not tied to the Firefox for Windows, Mac, Linux and Android release process, and will not necessarily follow the release cadence of Firefox for Windows, Mac, Linux and Android."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.