February 17th, 2012
Most smartphones use ARM processors. Much like how most PCs use x86 processors, for various reasons ARM has become the CPU of choice for mobile devices. Similar to x86, there are different versions of ARM processors that support different features. One of the biggest differences is which instruction set is supported. Instructions are the smallest units of what a processor can do, and an instruction set are the particular units that a processor knows how to run. For Intel, instruction sets were changed when they went from the 386 to the 486 to the Pentium and so on. For ARM, the instruction sets are numbered, with the most current one in use being ARMv7 (with ARMv8 in development). Confusingly, ARM’s processors themselves have similar naming, with the ARM11 being the generation that supports the ARMv6 instruction set, and ARM Cortex being the generation that supports the ARMv7 instruction set. All high-end smartphones that are currently shipping use processors that support the ARMv7 instruction set. The Apple iPhone 4S, Samsung Galaxy S2 and Galaxy Nexus, as well as others all come with similar processors. They’re all similarly fast as processors in smartphones go, and ARMv7 contains lots of features that allow programs to run very quickly.
Coming back to the present, we’ve got a revitalized mobile team working on a revamped Firefox Mobile that’s much faster than previous versions, so the performance target seems much more within reach. We also had people attending MozCamps and other Mozilla events across the globe last year. Dietrich visited Nairobi for some Mozilla Kenya events and found that the most widely used Android phones in Kenya are all ARMv6 devices. In addition, there are lots of Android phones being sold in China that are ARMv6. Even in the USA there are some low-end Android devices being released that are still ARMv6, like the LG Optimus Hub, which shipped in October of 2011. As of that date roughly 58% of the Android install base was comprised of ARMv6 phones. That’s a huge segment of the market that we’re not supporting.
Because of this, during the Firefox Mobile revamp Doug roped me in and asked if I would look into getting our ARMv6 builds back up and running. I started working on it figuring it wouldn’t be too bad since we used to produce builds. As it turns out, I was wrong. We managed to break things in quite a few ways since we disabled those builds. A few of them were simple fixes in our build configuration (although one of those took Mike Hommey and I a solid week of debugging to track down), but I also ran into a few problems with our custom linker. Firefox Mobile ships with a replacement for the system dynamic linker on Android. It’s pretty complicated, but this is the reason that Firefox only takes up about 15MB, whereas Chrome for Android takes up nearly 50MB after installation. Being a complicated piece of code there were some hard-to-diagnose bugs in it. Thankfully, with some input from Jacob Bramley from ARM we were able to track down the remaining problem and get builds working again.