Mozilla gives Firefox for iOS a UI facelift

Firefox for iOS version 10 arrived on Wednesday and delivers the same look and user experience that will debut on the desktop version of the web browser next week.

Credit: Magdalena Petrova

Mozilla has released a redesigned Firefox for Apple's iPhone and iPad, debuting the new look that will also grace the more popular desktop version of the browser next week.

Firefox for iOS version 10, which hit the App Store on Wednesday, features the same user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) that will also mark Firefox 57 for Windows, macOS and Linux, when it ships Tuesday, Nov. 14.

Derived from an ongoing project tapped as "Photon," the Firefox UI/UX mimics the minimalism of other browsers, notably Google's Chrome and Microsoft's Edge, with reduced clutter at the top of the window that includes combined address and search bars.

Firefox for iOS 10's other changes range from a revamped menu under the three-lined "hamburger" icon at the upper right to a recast new tab display, with the latter replicating the desktop browser's design.

firefox for iOS IDG/Gregg Keizer

Firefox for iOS, version 10, uses the same minimalist UI that Mozilla will debut in the Windows, macOS and Linux versions of its browser next week.

But most of the drum-thumping that Mozilla has done for what it has billed as "Firefox Quantum" - the alternate name for the upcoming Firefox 57 - is simply moot, and muted, on iOS.

That's because, like all browsers allowed into the App Store, Firefox for iOS is, at root, Safari, because Apple mandates that rivals rely on the same WebKit rendering and Nitro JavaScript engines used by its own Safari. Firefox on iOS, as is Chrome on the iPhone and iPad, is little more than a different UI wrapper around iOS's default browser.

That leaves competitors able to credibly compete only on a UI basis, and on the argument that it's more productive to use the same browser on both mobile and desktop.

So, Firefox on iOS cannot boast the same speed improvements that mark Firefox Quantum on personal computers - Mozilla said Quantum is twice as fast as Firefox of a year earlier - nor will the iPhone and iPad browser be able to offer the future additions Mozilla envisions for its desktop browser, among them a graphics processor-enhanced renderer.

Apple's long-standing rule conceivably has multiple fathers, but the most important to Apple, certainly, is that it precludes anyone gaining a performance edge over Safari, which Firefox might if Mozilla were allowed to use its own under-the-hood technologies. Minus performance differences, there are few reasons for switching.

Apple's position has paid off.

While Microsoft has seen its browsers' share tank on the far-more-open Windows - in October, Internet Explorer and Edge accounted for 19.7% of all Windows browsers, down from 52% just two years earlier - Apple has kept its users close, and on Safari. According to Irish analytics vendor StatCounter, 92% of all browsing activity on iOS in October was via Safari. In the U.S., Safari's percentage on iOS was a slightly higher 95.3%.

Another metrics vendor, U.S-based Net Applications, pegged Safari's worldwide user share on iOS at 89.2%. (Those percentages from StatCounter and Net Applications were only possible to calculate because Safari runs only on iOS.)

Meanwhile, Firefox across all mobile operating systems held a paltry share of 0.7% (seven-tenths of one percent) in Net Applications' tracking, far behind Chrome's dominant 59% and Safari's 31.6%. Mozilla makes versions of Firefox for both iOS and Android, the two most popular mobile operating systems.

It's not only unlikely that Firefox will claim a significant portion of the iOS browser market with version 10, it's incomprehensible. The primary pitch of Safari alternatives is to users of those browsers on other platforms, PCs (and Macs) for the most part, who want the convenience of using the same browser brand on all devices. The big benefit: Shared, synchronized data, ranging from passwords to bookmarks to open tabs, between the browsers on each device. Mozilla offers free sync through Firefox Account, a free service that requires a working email address. Users may synchronize everything from bookmarks and passwords to open tabs and browsing history.

For Firefox, that means it could only become a plausible competitor on iOS if its share on the desktop soared. While Firefox has been on the rise there this year, recouping 5.2 percentage points of user share since its near-death moment in 2016, by Net Applications' tally, only 13.1% of all online PC owners ran Firefox in October.

Chrome's share on the desktop last month was 59.8% worldwide - more than four times as large as Firefox's - yet even that share size wasn't enough to do anything but gnaw at the edges of Safari's lead. If Chrome cannot wear down Safari on iOS, what chance does Firefox have?

Realistic answer: None.

Firefox for iOS 10 can be downloaded from Apple's App Store to an iPhone or iPad. The browser requires iOS 10.3 or later.

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