Do you know your web browser's version?
Microsoft's Internet Explorer was the uncrowned king back in 2008 with Mozilla's Firefox snagging away half a percent or so from IE's market share each month. Mozilla in that year released Firefox 3.0, a controversial version of the browser that divided the browser's user base into the Firefox 2.x and 3.x camp. Microsoft released Internet Explorer 8, a version of the browser that still fell short in many areas even though it was seen by many as a huge improvement over the company's previously released Internet browsers.
And in that year came the first public release of Google Chrome for Windows, and with it fundamental changes to the web browser landscape. Chrome's impact in the browser's first year of existence was limited, and while Google managed to increase the market share over the important 1 percent mark in 2008, it took the company another year to surpass Opera and Safari to take the coveted number three spot for the first time near the end of 2009.
This was the time when Google started to release new versions of the browser more frequently, something that was unheard of before with Microsoft, Mozilla or Opera taking their time to release new major versions of their browsers. Mozilla, for instance, released 19 updates to Firefox 3.0.x, of which some were even issued after the major Firefox 3.5 and 3.6 versions landed in 2009 and 2010 respectively.
The version jumps were so rapid that Google Chrome passed Microsoft's Internet Explorer with the release of version 9 in February 2011, and less than 4 months later the Opera 10 browser by releasing Chrome 11 in April 2011. Fast forward a year and four months and we are at Google Chrome 21, the current stable version of the browser.
Mozilla in that time switched to a rapid-release process of its own after the final release of Firefox 4 in March 2011. The developers of the browser, unlike Google, continued to support previous versions of Firefox for some time after a new major version release. This pleased a group of Firefox users who did not want to switch to newer versions, but had the ill-effect of furthering fragmentation of the browser's user base.
The rapid release-process had another effect on the majority of Internet users. The version of the browser became less important, especially in the case of Chrome, with its near silent update system. Even more troubling was that even experienced Internet users and reporters seem nowadays to have lost interest in keeping up with browser updates and the changes they bring with them.
Who Cares Which?
This becomes apparent when you try to find information about a particular Chrome version and its changes. While you will eventually find the Google Chrome Releases Blog, you will notice that many tech sites remain silent about browser updates or only mention the update in a short post -- unless a version includes a major new feature that is worth looking more closely at. If you are a BetaNews regular you know that this is exactly how Chrome releases are handled here on the site.
A core reason for the disinterest can be found in the fact that versions are not important anymore for the majority of Internet users. The name of the browser is now more important than the version when it comes to compatibility with websites and features that it supports.
The only situation where versions become important again is if a new version breaks or changes a feature in the browser. This is not really happening for Chrome users that much, but Firefox users had to cope with major changes to the browser's interface or extension compatibility in the past after updates.
Version fatigue may have something to do with it as well. With that many major version releases in a year, it is difficult to keep up with and distinguish between versions. Can you list the major changes from Firefox 12 to 13, or Chrome 17 to 18? I know I can't, and it is likely that the majority of users out there can't as well. I can still name the major changes from Firefox 3.x to 4.x or from Firefox 2.x to 3.x though.
A simple question to end: Without looking, do you know your browser's name and version? And if you do, can you name at least one feature change that was introduced in the last major update?
What's your take on browser versions in general? Has your perception changed in past years?