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Firefox preps native Android interface

Web beast promises snappy response

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The Firefox interface on Android is going native – for snappier performance and to gobble less memory.

Mozilla has decided the Firefox UI for Android will be built using native code instead of the XML-based language Mozilla had used, called XUL. It seems Firefox will continue to use the Gecko layout engine.

Director of Firefox engineering Johnathan Nightingale wrote: "Firefox on Android is a critical part of supporting the open web, and this decision puts us in a position to build the best Firefox possible."

The change is not expected to take effect in Firefox 8 or 9 – to be released in November and December respectively – but will kick in afterwards.

A native Firefox UI will mean start-up times of fractions of a second compared to several seconds for a XUL user interface on certain Android-powered phones.

Using native code will also mean greater responsiveness and should lead to "significantly" less consumption of a phone's memory, Nightingale said.

The changes seem to fit into what is emerging as an across-the-board refresh of Firefox. This includes making the browser work better for different categories of users through code changes to making updates, which have become more frequent and less of a chore to install.

The move to a native UI comes as Firefox begins to feel pressure from Google's Chrome: FFox's market-share growth has plateaued while that of the Google browser continues. Google's Android, meanwhile, represents a growth opportunity thanks to the mobile operating system's growth in devices.

Google opened Android to native development in June 2009 with the Android 1.5 Native Development Kit (NDK). The NDK lets you build apps using native languages such as C and C++, which is compiled to run with a particular processor and instructions for greater speed and improved performance.

XUL is Mozilla's XML-based language that was conceived to let you build feature-rich apps capable of running on different platforms or in disconnected mode.

A native browser for Android could prove a headache for Firefox plug-in developers, who'll have to straddle different coding platforms. Aware of this, Nightingale said: "It's still early days, so we have a lot of questions to answer. We're talking with the Add-on SDK team about the best way to support extensions.

The Firefox team is meeting in Toronto, Canada, next week to break down and prioritise the work. "By the end of next week, we will have a clearer outline of the work ahead, and we'll update this list with those detail," Nightingale said. ®

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