The faster release process of Firefox
So Firefox 5 is about to ship. Before anything else, let me translate here two excerpts from this article in French about Firefox 5:
...this is not a major evolution of the browser but more an update to Firefox 4... No visible new feature...
I read and heard a lot about the good things coming from a faster release process. They are downsides too, and nobody really listed them in public. Given the impact on my own daily work, I think it's time to start the feedback loop. Reminder: criticism is always good, it helps spotting issues before they become too big and too painful.
- version numbers become meaningless. Firefox 4 was released the 22nd of march; 4.01 the 28th of april. Firefox 5 is about to be released. Firefox 6 and 7 are already announced. But even the press says 5 does not deserve a major version bump. Why not a 4.2 ? What's the mood of a user receiving a Firefox 5 when he/she sees no immediate visible difference with a Firefox 4 and when even the web site he/she reads about it says "no visible new feature?".
- corporations cannot follow that speed. Big corporations have to evaluate a new browser against their intranets and often with their corporate partners before allowing it. Even builtin update to minor versions is often forbidden because of corporate rules. Making version number evolve faster puts a huge burden on the IT departments of big corporations: the users see a bump from 4 to 5 and ask for it while a bump from 4.0 to 4.1 does not cause the same reactions.
- Google does it. So what? Last time I checked, the Mozilla Manifesto was about openness, freedom of choice and innovation, not competition with WebKit.
- the Mozilla ecosystem suffers. Users of tools embedding Gecko (for instance through XULRunner) want applications matching the modernity and security of the last version of Firefox. But it's very difficult for organizations that are most of the time much smaller than Mozilla itself to follow the trend. In the case of BlueGriffon, 1.0 was released the 10th of may. A v5 of Firefox released in the coming days will without any doubt trigger feedback from users wanting a version of BlueGriffon matching that v5's core and I am not ready yet, that's far too fast for me. Even if my tests show I can go on with the last xulrunner, my feature set did not improve that much to bump to 2.0. I can already hear the counter-argument: don't mention Firefox versions, mention Gecko versions. But guys, that's exactly what I said about the "Powered by Mozilla" stamp: a lot of people have just no idea what Mozilla or Gecko are! They know the name "Firefox", they partly ignore "Mozilla" and totally ignore "Gecko". Firefox is the only reference that does matter here.
Anyway, moving to a new version of Firefox, its toolkit and Gecko will always require from 3rd-party embedders tests and often adaptations to their own code. That takes time, and the faster release process does not really care.
By the way, don't the marketing teams at Mozilla suffer too? A major version every 16/18 weeks, wow...
- Fragmentation and workload for embedders. If embedders want to anticipate just a little bit what's going to happen in Firefox or the toolkit or Gecko, the time investment just multiplied by 3 or 4. For most of us, that's just not feasible and we'll follow only the about-to-be-released tree and we will probably always lag. In other terms, we won't detect bugs caused by changes in the other ones, the to-be-released-in-16-and-32-weeks trees and we'll let pass regressions or issues that should probably be detected immediately.
- Web authors will have to sniff even more browser versions. It's a browser war time and new cool kids are around the block. 3D Transforms, Animations, Reflections, Device APIS and many, many more. A faster release process means a greater fragmentation of the browser landscape and that's absolutely terrible for web authors.
I'm not saying a faster release process is 100% bad. I'm only saying here it has important downsides that are in my opinion important enough to trigger a feedback loop. Why not a faster release process but with minor version numbers instead of major version numbers? In particular, the side-effects on the Mozilla ecosystem and the Web authors' community seem to me really underestimated.
Update: I forgot to mention the huge impact on add-on authors... And add-ons are one of the most influential points in the success of Firefox in front of Chrome.