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27 June 2011, 10:28

Firefox update politics become contentious

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Firefox logo Mozilla's switch to a rapid release schedule for the Firefox browser which sees a new release every six weeks is causing confusion, consternation and criticism. The issue was brought to a head by the news that there would be no more security updates for Firefox 4; Firefox 5 is regarded as the security update for Firefox 4. Firefox 4 had just one security update in April and there will be only one more security update for Firefox 3.6. Its users will also have to join the rapid release train that is Firefox, which will then see Firefox 5 end of life'd (EOL) when Firefox 6 is released and Firefox 6 EOL'd when Firefox 7 arrives.

Mozilla's view is that the change in version numbering merely indicates regular updating, and that that process, combined with aggressive auto-updating, will replace the older process of providing updates to specific older versions. This addresses what it believes is the audience for Firefox, the general public. Google's experiment with Chrome's rapid updating has shown the strategy to be effective in ensuring that the latest versions of a browser are being run by users.

But the new process has created a number of problems, in part, from the change from one release model to another. Enterprises, who are more accustomed to having a major release version, testing it internally, and then updating it when security releases are released as minor versions, are now faced with a rapid release process which doesn't allow them time to test and deploy. Former IBM developer Mike Kaply posted his concerns with the new process and Mozilla's Asa Dotzler, Firefox Product Manager, responded to a later posting from Kaply saying "Enterprise has never been (and I'll argue, shouldn't be) a focus of ours" and that "A minute spent making a corporate user happy can better be spent making regular users happy". Dotzler's comments were questioned by Daniel Glazman, author of the Nvu editor and CaScadeS CSS editor, who pointed out that Firefox's successes included the French government, ministers and Gendarmerie, who he believes will move away from Firefox in the "middle to long run".

Another issue which affects more users is extensions. Extensions can be deemed incompatible with new versions of Firefox and disabled by the browser until an update is available. With the new update process, some extensions could be disabled every six weeks as the extension API is not stable. Dotzler's response to this is "You should ask your Firefox add-on vendors to use Firefox’s stable APIs available through the Add-on SDK. If they do that, their add-ons won’t break with Firefox releases". The Add-On SDK has only gone final at the same time as the release of Firefox 5 though. Google's Chrome never had the problem of a legacy extensions system and API.

Whether Mozilla will adapt its plans is unknown. In May, Firefox release manager Christian Legnitto described the new release process as "a big unknown and may need to be adjusted after Firefox 5's release (though we hope and don't think it will)" adding that "one of the critical pieces we are watching is how Firefox 5 relates to 4, add-on compatibility, impact on partners, support expectations, dropped platforms, etc".


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