Mozilla backtracks on scrubbing Firefox version numbers

Mozilla will not scrub the version number from Firefox’s “About” box after all, putting an end to an often-heated debate that first surfaced two weeks ago.

“There are no plans to adjust the version number. It will remain in its current place in the About window, and we are going to continue with the current numbering scheme,” said Alex Faaborg, a principal designer at Mozilla, in a message on the “mozilla.dev.usability” discussion list Tuesday.

In another message on the same thread, Faaborg blamed “miscommunication inside of the [user experience] team” for the blow-up about the departing version number.
Meanwhile, the release of a version of the Firefox browser every six weeks is found to be disconcerting, and at times potentially unmanageable by enterprises, the chair of Mozilla Foundation, which maintains the browser, said in a blog post on Thursday.

The compatibility of add-ons with new versions is also another issue, said Mitchell Baker, chair of the nonprofit organization.

But quicker releases of new versions ensure that new capabilities are not delayed for nearly a year before they can be delivered to people, Baker said.

Version numbers irrelevant

On Aug. 14, Asa Dotzler, a director of Firefox, announced that version numbers were irrelevant to Firefox users, and said that they would be stripped from the About box, which is used by most locally-installed software to identify the edition being run.

The reaction was almost unanimously negative , and as that original thread grew — it eventually included about 440 messages, an amazing number for a Mozilla discussion — many people complained as much about Dotzler’s attitude as about the decision itself.

“Because we should all listen doesn’t mean we should put all of our plans or features up for a vote,” Dotzler said at one point when Firefox users griped that their feedback wasn’t being taken into account.

This week, Faaborg said that someone one his team — Dotzler had identified him as Alex Limi, a lead in the interface design group — had asked Dotzler to log the change in Bugzilla, Mozilla’s bug- and modification-tracking database.

“I really appreciate Asa giving us the authority and deferring to our decision, but in this case we didn’t have the design sorted out enough ahead of time and we basically set him up,” Faaborg said.

On Aug. 20, Faaborg apologized for not weighing in on the debate earlier, saying that half of his team was on vacation and the other half had been out of the office at a user research-related offsite.

The idea of downplaying Firefox’s version number wasn’t new — Mozilla has been deemphasizing numbers since it shifted to a rapid-release schedule in March — and is consistent with the practice of rival Google. Although Chrome identifies the current version number in its About box, Google usually refers to the browser sans any number.

Chrome has an advantage, however, in that it automatically updates itself without the user seeing a notification or having to call up the About box, which is how Firefox now triggers an update.

Mozilla plans to add silent updating to Firefox. Developers have crafted a features page that outlines the work necessary, but have not set a timeline for its completion or a target edition of Firefox where it may debut. Elsewhere, Mozilla has tagged silent updating as “P1,” the highest priority label for an under-construction feature.

At one point, silent updating was slated for Firefox 4, the browser Mozilla launched in March 2011. But last year, the feature was dropped, one of several victims to the chopping block as Mozilla dealt with development delays.

Mozilla released Firefox 6 last week, and is planning on shipping Firefox 7 on Sept. 27.

Rapid release of Firefox version

But quicker releases of new versions ensure that new capabilities are not delayed for nearly a year before they can be delivered to people, Baker of the Mozilla Foundation said.

Mozilla recently adopted a “rapid release process” that it said would allow a new release of Firefox every six weeks.

“Before Mozilla instituted the rapid release process, we would sometimes have new capabilities ready for nearly a year before we could deliver them to people,” Baker said. Web developers would have to wait that year to be able to make their applications better, she added.

A browser is the delivery vehicle for the Internet, and the Internet moves very quickly, Baker said. But if the browser is to be the interface for the Internet, it has to be more like the Internet. That means delivering capabilities when they are ready, through a rapid release process, she said.

There is however work to be done to make the rapid release process smoother and hopefully more useful to more of the user base, Baker said.
Users have however been asking for a middle ground between frequent releases of versions, and the delay in addition of new capabilities by almost a year. Kees Grinwis, commenting on Baker’s blog post, for example, suggested a long time support (LTS) version of Firefox.

Mozilla could release an LTS version as a major release, say Firefox 7, and then release the versions between the LTS versions as 7.x versions, said Aashish Arora in his comment. “Make consumer installations silently auto update in the background while disabling auto update for enterprises,” Arora added.

Others are dismissive. Users are finding that broken add-ons, and UI (user interface) changes are making Firefox difficult to use, commented Dan. “All of these people are turning their attention to alternatives,” he added.

Mozilla acknowledged in June that a key challenge for enterprises is that they need to certify their websites, apps and add-ons each time Firefox is updated. “This can take weeks or months. Security is also paramount, enterprises need access to a version that includes all known security fixes,” it said in a blog post.

Mozilla said it was exploring solutions that balance these needs, with active discussion in the community. The foundation however made clear that its focus was on consumers. “The Mozilla Community has focused our efforts on the needs of the individual user, and prioritized the product roadmap and features accordingly. However, as is the case with many technologies, loyal Firefox users and their IT departments have sought to bring Firefox into their places of work,” it said.

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