Mozilla frees web browser from mobile language limitations: A Q&A

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I was intrigued to read recently that Mozilla is working on updating the Firefox Android mobile browser, codename Fennec, to allow the browser to offer more languages than the underlying Android system currently supports. Typically, apps leverage language support from the underlying operating system, which can sometimes be limiting. So it’s nice to see Mozilla moving beyond this limitation.

To learn more, I asked Mozilla localization engineer Jeff Beatty a few questions. Here’s what he had to say.

Q: With Fennec, Mozilla is effectively freeing the web browser from the language restrictions of the underlying Android OS. Can you detail roughly how many language Android supports vs. the number of languages Fennec will support?

A: This can be a complicated question, because language support is often very broadly defined. What traditionally determines if an app can be localized in the Android OS is the number of languages the OS itself is localized into. Excluding region codes, the Android source code indicates that Google localizes Android into 46 languages. Device manufacturers will often expand that to upwards of 85 languages. Essentially, any Android device can have localizations for between 46 and approximately 85 languages.

By allowing for language switching within the Firefox for Android browser, we’re able to allow users to select from languages that are not offered on their Android device. There are about 16 volunteer Mozilla localization teams who have translated strings for the browser, but have been unable to see their localizations delivered to Firefox users through the Google Play store. Of these, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Basque, Fulah, and Armenian are on the roadmap to be shipped with the language switching feature in Firefox 32.

Q: How are these additional languages supported by the browser? Specifically, is the language data included in the original install or will data be pulled from the server if the user switches to a language not supported by Android?

A: The language data is included in a multi-locale APK delivered through the Google Play store.

Q: Are there any other localization/culture data dependencies on Android that have proved challenging when it comes to supporting non-Android languages?

A: Absolutely. The language switching piece places us in the right direction, but we’re now confronted with localization issues we haven’t had to encounter before. The benefit of shipping Android-supported languages is that you rarely have to worry about issues with character rendering, Unicode-enabled fonts, ISO locale code support, or in-app region-specific customizations. Now we need to ensure that each of these locales are thoroughly tested for these issues and determine what we can feasibly do to not only support the languages, but also ensure that memory consumption remains low and performance remains high for all users.

Q: Do you have other operating systems planned for this model? For instance, there would be an even greater disparity on iOS that Fennec will address.

A: There are no plans to expand Fennec to ship on iOS. The Flame developer reference phone allows us more freedom to experiment with languages that have never been tested on devices before (like Fulah, certain Indic languages, and indigenous languages in Mexico, for instance). All of these have active localizers and some have even already been using Firefox OS in their language unofficially on localized test / developer builds of Firefox OS.

Q: Finally, was this feature something asked for by users? Do you have any usage data that illustrates demand for a given language/locale that you are now able to support?

A: Users and our volunteer localization community were the primary drivers behind the demand for this feature. Since language coverage is a primary concern for the localization team, we are preparing to meet that demand.

To learn more…




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