Aug. 16, 2011, 12:25 p.m.
IT | Rants

Anal UX People

Anyone who has a keen interest in things computer related might have heard about the new flame war going on regarding the proposal to drop the version number from Firefox. This is part of a bigger goal to do away with the traditional release cycle where a major version is released every couple of years, including major changes. Instead, Firefox took merely 2 months to jump from the first 5.0 release to the 6.0 release, which has been officially released today.

There are several issues that I have with this. Firstly, you need to understand that dropping the version number is a very bad idea. I understand why they want to do it - with the change in release schedule the version number does not indicate significant releases anymore. There are more changes I believe between 3.6 and 3.6.19, than between 5.0 and 6.0 IMO. That being said, version numbers are still paramount.

From a usability perspective it might make sense - just state whether you are on the latest release or not, and show when last the browser checked for updates. In a modern world this might be a reasonable approach. But it breaks down completely.

For a modern world, the problems with this are:

  1. Customer to website owner: Your site does not render correctly on my browser.
    Website owner to customer: What browser and version are you running?
    Customer to website owner: Firefox…. And it says it is not the latest version.
    Website owner: Eish.

  2. Customer to plugin vendor: Your plugin does not work with my Firefox.
    Plugin vendor: What browser and version are you using?

  3. Corporate IT Administrator: I have a thousand PC's to maintain. I cannot have Firefox update itself automatically and then break compatibility with the 10 sites we are hosting internally. But how do I know what version I am on? How do I get everyone on the same version? Uniformity is important.

For a third world country - where the use of the free Firefox is very attractive - the problems are as per above and additionally:

  1. Customer: I have no link to the Internet. I have to drive to the nearest Internet Cafe to download an update. The concept of "the latest version" is out of the door…
  2. Customer: I have a 56kbps link to the Internet. Downloading a new release of Firefox is the last thing on my mind. The concept of "the latest version" is out of the door…

Then, the whole concept of a fast release cycle sucks even more. Consider these issues:

  1. There is no stable version of Firefox. Firefox 4 was released in March 2011. Firefox 5 was released in June 2011. Firefox 6 was released today, August 2011. Now if this was just a case of version numbers not reading like 4.0, 4.1, 4.2 but instead 4.0, 5.0, 6.0, then I'd still have a major concern with it because it is understood throughout the industry that a version number has a major and a minor component, and a major number change implies major changes to the application. This is breaking with a tradition that has been set since the dark ages. But that is not my major gripe. Every "major" release breaks plugin compatibility. I am on Firefox 6 now, but my 1Password plugin is not working. So every 2 months I will break compatibility with all my plugins and be without them for a couple of weeks until the developers caught on?
  2. Which brings me to another point. I cannot decide not to upgrade, because Firefox will NOT receive security updates for older releases. You have to be on the latest branch to receive security updates.

It is clear that people did not think this through. Browser compatibility is a major issue. A browser is not an application like Word, and also not a web application like Twitter / Facebook. People have argued that Twitter / etc. does not have version numbers - that is obvious, it is one single application. It merely needs to stay compatible with the set of browsers that it is supposed to support, for the rest it does not matter what version it is at - it is a service. And regarding applications such as Word, that application does not have to be compatible with anything. As long as it runs on a specified platform, and can open up your old documents it is irrelevant what the version is, or how frequent major releases are made.

A browser is different. It is kind of like an operating system. There are plugins (drivers in an OS) and content that gets rendered (applications in an OS). If the architecture changes, like with major OS releases, the drivers and applications will stop functioning. It takes years for all applications and drivers to be made compatible with a new operating system.

So if a browser has rapid major releases and breaks backwards compatibility, and there is no security / bug fixes applied to the last major release, then I see it as a recipe for disaster. In this instance Microsoft has a much more sane release cycle. Businesses can actually perform work using Windows XP / IE6 as it was a de facto standard for many, many years. Service packs came when it was needed, and IT could plan for the deployment of said updates.

I can see how businesses will shy away from Firefox because of this.

Case in point - in less than 2 months my extension changed state from just released for Firefox 5 to incompatbile:

1Password Extension
1Password Extension

So that means… Every two months I must upgrade Firefox (as I mentioned, older releases do not get security patches). Instead of having the ability to choose when I upgrade to the next stable release on my own time, I am forced to follow the Firefox release schedule. That means I have to upgrade Firefox, upgrade all plugins (if they are available yet), and in the case of 1Password I FIRST need to update the program to the latest BEFORE I can install their plugin… So now instead of deciding when I want to upgrade to the next major release, I am forced to do so if I want to stay secure and also forced to upgrade a whole bunch of other things that are not even related to the internet.

Control is being taken from us… I hate this.