Firefox on Mobile: Browser or App?

It seems common for people have the same expectations for browsers on Mobile as they do on Desktop. Why is that? I’d rather create a set of Mobile-specific expectations for a browser. Mobile is very application-centric and those applications play a large role in how people use devices. When defining what success means for Firefox on Mobile, we should be thinking about Firefox as an application, not as a browser.


Let’s start with navigation. On Desktop, navigation typically starts in a browser. On Mobile, navigation starts on the device home screen. The home screen holds a collection of applications that provide a very task-based workflow. This means you don’t need a browser to do many tasks on Mobile. In fact, a browser is somewhat secondary – it’s where you can end up after starting in a task-specific application. That’s the opposite of Desktop.

One way we started to optimize for this situation is Tab Queues: A way to send content to Firefox, in the background, without leaving your current task/application.

Another way to fit into home screen navigation is to launch favorite websites directly from home screen icons. On Android, Chrome and Firefox have supported this feature for some time, but Google’s Progressive Web Apps initiative will push the concept forward.

If the home screen is the primary way to start navigation, we can add more entry points (icons) for specific Firefox features. We already have a Search activity and we also have access to Logins/Passwords. Both of those could be put on the home screen, if the user chooses, to allow faster access.

Unsurprisingly, a correlation between applications on the home screen and application usage was a key takeaway from a recent comScore study:

“App usage is a reflexive, habitual behavior where those occupying the best home screen real estate are used most frequently.”

Content and Tasks

Creating a path to success means looking for opportunities that we can leverage. Let’s look at analyst reports for situations where browsing is used more than applications on Mobile:

  • Accessing news and information sources
  • Research tasks and cross-brand product comparisons
  • Retail, travel and shopping tasks

If this is the type of content people access using browsers on Mobile, Firefox should be optimized to handle those tasks and workflows. It’s interesting to think about how we could leverage Firefox to create solutions for these opportunities.

What if we were building a native application that allowed you to subscribe to news, blogs and articles? Would we create a view specific to discovering content? Would we use your browsing history to help recommend content?

What if we were building a native application designed to make researching a topic or product easier? How is that different than a generic tabbed browser?

Some ideas might end up being separate applications themselves, using Firefox as a secondary activity. That keeps Firefox focused on the task of browsing and viewing content, while new applications handle other specific tasks and flows. Those applications might even end up on your home screen, if you want faster access.

Retention and Engagement

Mobile applications, including browsers, struggle with user retention. Studies show that people will try out applications an average of 4.5 times before abandoning.

Browsers have a larger reach than applications on Mobile, while applications are awesome at engagement. How does a browser increase engagement? Again, we should think like an application.

What if we were building a native application that could save links to content? What other features would we add? Maybe we’d add reminders so people wouldn’t forget about those recently saved, but never viewed, links to content. Browsers don’t do that, but applications certainly do.

What if we were building a native application that allowed people to view constantly changing news, sports or retail content? We could notify (or badge parts of the UI) when new content is available on favorite sites.


We should be measuring Firefox as an application, and not a browser. Marketshare and pageviews, compared to the OS defaults (Safari and Chrome), may not be the best way to measure success. Why should we measure our success only against how the OS defaults view web content? Why not compare Firefox against other applications?

Research tells us that anywhere from 85% to 90% of smartphone time is spent in applications, leaving 15% to 10% of time spent in browsers. Facebook is leading the pack at 13%, but the percentages drop off to single digits quickly. There is certainly an opportunity to capitalize on that 15% to 10% slice of the pie. In fact, the slice probably ends up being bigger than 15%.


Treating Firefox as an application means we don’t take on all applications, as a single category. It means we take them on individually, and I think we can create a pretty solid path to success under those conditions.

Also published on Medium.

5 thoughts on “Firefox on Mobile: Browser or App?

  1. I agree with the direction of viewing the “browser” as another app. Mobile is a totally different paradigm that no longer associates “internet” with “browser”. Companies and apps are starting to penetrate into each others space more aggressively than ever, and I see a lot of ground looking at Firefox as a content aggregator and app of choice for niche tasks like research and shopping. For a while though, “search” may remain core and center for opening a browser on a Mobile device.

  2. I like these semi-apps very much, but with Fennec I would like to have them *a little bit more* separated. Mainly, I don’t like the fact that when i restart “normal” Firefox, I get for example Twitter running. These HTML5-apps shouldn’t not leak into the normal browser, I think. However, do not separate them too much (e.g., I like having all passwords etc. available via Firefox Sync).

    Is there a bug for this kind of separation? Should I file one?

  3. I really like this assertion:

    `We should be measuring Firefox as an application`

    But I would go even further, Firefox and the way the web is evolving is not just a web renderer but a platform.

    I’m looking forward to see how the concept of Progressive Web Apps arrives to Firefox (mobile and desktop), it will definitely contribute to the amount of time spent on the application.

    But also, I consider that the work done in mobile should not be measured only by ‘time’ or ‘visits’, but how the platform is evolving to allow developers create better experiences that later on will be translated to ‘time’ spend on Firefox (or other browser).

    Great rant.

  4. With mobile apps, the war (effectiveness ? money?) is about the time of use. So Apps makers don’t want you to leave they app.
    It’s a reason why Facebook integrated the browser in they content streaming app.
    Can’t it be successful for Firefox to do it the same but opposite way ? In other words, can an app be successful without a connect-to-people backbone ? What is the state of other content-first apps ?

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