By Craig Buckler

Mozilla, Firefox and the Version Number Chaos

By Craig Buckler

Firefox’s rapid release schedule has not been the success Mozilla hoped. Most web developers agree it’s good for HTML5 feature evolution but it’s not without problems:

  • Add-on compatibility. Most of us use extensions which cannot keep up with Firefox’s development progress.
  • Increased effort. The majority of IT departments must test mission-critical applications before a browser update can be deployed throughout the enterprise.
  • Confusion. Few people understand the rationale behind major version increments. Why shouldn’t Firefox 6 be version 4.2?

Mozilla is replicating Google’s release model but Chrome does not necessarily exhibit the same problems. It’s add-ons system is far simpler; more akin to bookmarklets than integrated code. The browser also has fewer legacy hurdles and has silently updated since the early days. Those using Chrome either understand this concept or don’t care.

One solution Mozilla considered was the removal of version numbers from Firefox’s “Help > About” dialog. Mozilla’s logic:

  1. Few users understand version numbers.
  2. Removal would simplify the UI.
  3. Users would be informed when the last check occurred, whether they were using the latest version, and how they could update (if Firefox had not automagically done so).
  4. If you really needed the version number, it could be found in about:support.

Uproar ensued on Bugzilla and the associated newsgroup discussion. The majority of respondents detested the idea (although a large volume of ranting and spam appeared when Mozilla’s intentions went public).

The organization put forward some reasonable arguments but ultimately backed down. Mozilla’s Robert Kaiser:

Can we close this bug report?

Version numbers in software are like coordinate systems in physics: irrelevant and necessary at the same time — it’s completely irrelevant how you do them, but they provide necessary reference points. Not more, not less.

Where ever we go with this, I don’t think it will have either a large impact on version number messaging or on making Firefox useless, so I think the rage on both sides is overrated.

The reply from VanillaMozilla:

Done … I’m having a hard time finding anyone at all who thinks this is a good idea.

The argument become overheated but Mozilla’s proposition had a number of flaws:

  1. It went against established UI conventions that span OSes and 20+ years of IT development. There may be better ways, but removing version numbers is not likely to be the best solution.
  2. The proposal was too simplistic and did nothing to tackle Firefox’s rapid update issues. Version numbering was never the cause or the cure.
  3. Users may not understand version numbers, but removing them was a non-issue. Firefox wouldn’t suddenly become easier to use.
  4. There are multiple versions of Firefox in the wild. Some would have version numbers, some wouldn’t. None of the older editions would state they were out of date.
  5. Version numbers are important to developers and IT support staff. What’s the first question you ask when someone reports a problem in a specific browser?

Version numbers have been rendered meaningless in Chrome and Firefox. Few people know or care what version of Chrome they’re running. Perhaps, one day, the same will be true for Firefox — but we’re not there yet.

Firefox is an older browser with far more baggage and a large, passionate user community. Mozilla ultimately listened to their demands, but the the proposal and subsequent onslaught did nothing for the browser.

  • My mother came to me yesterday with a problem downloading files she purchased. I tried in Firefox (her default browser) and failed. Then I tried in Safari with success. I checked her Firefox version number and it was 5; it hadn’t auto-updated to 6.

    My problem is not so much with keeping version numbers during this insane rapid release environment, but with the crappy quality of the browsers that Mozilla is putting out there. It’s like QA has gone completely out the window. I’ve given you just ONE example where Firefox was a complete and total fail, but I have others.

    Why does Mozilla have such a QA nightmare on their hands that Google Chrome has never seemed to have? And if auto-updating is not necessarily automatic (as in my mother’s case), do we now have to test our websites in four, going on five, different versions of Firefox? That’s worse than IE ever was.

    And since Mozilla is end-of-lifing versions as soon as the next one comes out, making the old ones impossible to download through “official” channels, developers had better preserve their old versions for testing.

    It’s become a nightmare, and I’m starting to preach to my less-techy friends to NOT use Firefox anymore, whereas a mere six months ago I was touting it as the best browser out there. Ironic, since this was all meant to “help” web developers by implementing HTML5 and CSS3 features more quickly.

    So furious at Mozilla. So furious.

    • Pete Wright

      Been through a similar issue with my mother, Tracy, except she’s on a Mac running OS 10.4 (IIRC). Update Firefox? Yep, fine – but she’ll have to buy a newer version (or more correctly, sub-version, since 10.5 would do) of MacOS to do so. On my own system, I’ve all but given up FF except for basic testing, since I can’t trust it to even keep running the developer add-ins I once used constantly. The tools in Chrome & Safari aren’t quite as flexible yet, but they’re far more use than something that might disable the features I need at any moment. It seems the mozdevs have become so smart at being smart that they’ve forgotten how to do the basics, like making sure that adding bells and whistles doesn’t break the stuff the existing audience already relies on.

  • Agree with you. Firefox has got a lot of things wrong here. As Tracy says, it’s indeed a nightmare after you upgrade a new version of it nowadays. Just one of those problems I face is the add-ons I’ve installed become incompatible. This only makes things harder for the developers who maintain them and it might be not long before they give up maintaining these add-ons altogether. Firefox will have to get this right very soon. If not they’ll keep on losing more and more users to Google Chrome.

  • Ron

    I think all web-browsers should move to Chrome’s auto-update system. The web is an exciting yet dangerous place, and nobody should be using it with old software. Period. I understand this is a problem for Linux distributions and enterprises, but this is just another challenge that those guys will have to overcome to live with the rest of us is the 21st century. Firefox’s problem is that they aren’t automatically upgrading fast enough.

    I also don’t mind losing version numbers. If all that matters is you are running the latest update or not, then that’s all you need to know. There probably does need to be some way for the discussion of bugs to be associated with particular versions, so maybe we need to keep version numbers around until there is another way of meaningfully attaching bugs to specific “versions”.

    On the topic of add-ons, Firefox needs to change their plugin system so that developers are not targeting a particular version of the whole application, but rather a particular version of a specific API. If the API changes, then clearly the add-on might need an update in order to work, but if the add-on relies on code that hasn’t changed, then I don’t see why that wouldn’t automatically imply it is compatible. I bet many add-ons would maintain compatibility without a version bump if only they had more granular associations with Firefox’s sub-systems.

  • I fear that addon developers will get burned out keeping up with the release schedule, especially as most would be working for near-free. Coupled with the auto-update means developers could be upgraded away from essential addons without any action on their part.

  • I just got a $829.99 iPad2 for only $103.37 and my mom got a $1499.99 HDTV for only $251.92, they are both coming with USPS tomorrow. I would be an idiot to ever pay full retail prices at places like Walmart or Bestbuy. I sold a 37″ HDTV to my boss for $600 that I only paid $78.24 for. I use ( Bidsget ) . ( com )

  • Kenny Landes

    After being an ardent Firefox user since it first launched, I moved everything over to Chrome last night. (I kept a clean install with Firebug as a testing-only environment exactly the same way I use Opera and Safari.) The forced updates are productivity drains, keep breaking plugins, don’t always work with my core SAS apps, etc. It’s been disruptive, and I just don’t have time to wait for my reliable plugins or critical SAS apps to catch up with Mozilla’s suddenly accelerated release schedule. There’s no reason we should be at 6.1 now. It should be, as the article suggests, 4.2.1. They need to rethink this strategy and come up with a way to push frequent updates without losing support of SAS vendors or breaking the add-on features people have come to depend on as a key feature of Firefox since it was first released. At that point, I switched away from Internet Explorer, which is finally coming back around to being a reasonably modern browser with IE9. I think Firefox is destined to be the next IE.

  • The two things that Firefox has going against it with the chrome update model are:

    1) Plug-ins can be broken

    2) People have to restart their browser

    This is the result of adding a feature into an environment and not taking into account what relationship it would play to all the other components.

    • People still have to restart Chrome to receive the updates. Though it *is* a lot less obtrusive about the process.

      • Oh, I agree with you John. I left out that little detail, hehe.

  • The only reason I use Firefox at all, especially after Chrome popped up, is Firebug. If it weren’t for that, I’d only have to use Firefox to test websites I develop to make sure they worked properly.

    • Anonymous

      Didn’t one of the creators of Firebug just get hired by Google? It may be soon that you won’t even need Firefox for Firebug anymore.

      • Paul

        Web inspector is really gaining on firebug, and provides most of the major features, and even has features that Firebug is lacking.

      • Paul

        Web inspector is really gaining on firebug, and provides most of the major features, and even has features that Firebug is lacking.

  • Anonymous

    What’s all the fuss with version numbers? I only use IE. (tee hee…YES, I’m kidding… ;)

    Seriously, as others have stated, I made the move a while ago to Chrome as my main browser for all my day to day use. But, at work we are stuck with IE as our default browser. Even worse, it’s IE8.

    It’s not just the add-on issue that has plagued Firefox since this rapid upgrade cycle began, I’ve noticed that the stability of Firefox has also taken a turn for the worse. A lot more crashes and hangups now than before.

    I still open Firefox almost every day. There are still some reasons to use it, especially during web development. And also with each English Premier League season, it comes in handy. I have two Fantasy Football teams, but thanks to cookies, I can’t have them open at the same time in the same browser, and sign in to one account in Chrome and the other in Firefox to plan for the coming matches. IE is a necessity for work. Heck, I’ll even open up Opera occasionally. Probably the only browser I NEVER use, except during web development to check sites, is Safari.

  • Nobody commented on the user interface changes. They are what I find frustrating. In their attempt to fit on today’s laptops and tablets they have moved some items offscreen, so that now I have to make extra clicks to get to what was previously visible and easily accessible. Also, they have moved things around that have stayed visible, so that I now have to look for them in order to use them. This all means that I have to create a whole new set of habits just to use the browser. All us desktop users who have been increasing our screen size over the years do not need to conserve screen space. Mozilla, like many others before them, has become isolated in it’s ivory tower, disconnected from it’s user base.
    Removal of version numbers is just an attempt to make it harder for us to focus our gripes with the hope that we will then shut up and accept their direction. It’s not that they will lose users, it is that they are losing users by fixing what is not broken and in the process they are breaking things.

  • ralph.m

    Nowadays, I either have to go through a long rigmarole to check if add-ons have been updated yet, or put up the the endless FF messages asking me to upgrade. Now I find that FF throws up a crash report every time I close it, so I have to do a lot of testing to find out what’s causing it, such as disabling add-ons. I’m just about done with FF, to be honest. I now have Chrome set up, and am about to switch over. Once/if that happens, I’ll never be back.

  • Steph

    Removal of the version numbers…about as bad of an idea as going to the rapid release schedule in the first place.
    I was unaware that Mozilla had decided to do this when version 5 came out. So when the message popped up on my screen saying that it was time to upgrade to v5, I immediately killed it with the task manager and ran a virus scan. I was in total disbelief because v4 had just recently arrived, and I delayed that upgrade for a long time because of some of my extensions.
    I think the whole idea was a big mistake. They are completely misusuing what a version upgrade is supposed to be. Everyone knew it except them. No wonder it isn’t working out too well for them. Google can get away with it because they have always done it that way (so people who care already know), and the process is silent. Mozilla used to have a fanfare everytime a new version came out, so this is causing nothing but confusion for users, frustration for developers, and frankly, a bad experience all around. If it has a problem, fix it in a point release, not a whole new version.
    At this point, I only use Firefox for the development add-ons, and if they ever catch up on these with another browser, I’ll switch.

  • Frankly, the version numbers should remain. Perhaps the rapid increment of version numbers should slow down. I mean, let’s face it, as the article says, FF 6.0.2 should really only be FF 4.2.2. (based on the version I am currently running)
    As for the add-ons, I am not a computer programmer by any means, I strictly deal in web programming (though I am dabbling in Java), but how hard is it to make a newer FF backward compatible? There are a number of extension I have installed and subsequently removed due to incompatibility issues. For me it is not a huge deal given that the web developer stuff seems to be keeping up, but still. I am very curious to know why they aren’t backward compatible.
    So here’s hoping they fix the problems while still making it faster, and safer as always. ^_^

  • Randall Lind

    Firefox 7 sync is getting an unknown error connecting to their server. Mozilla don’t seem to be in a rush or care to fix it.

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