Even (some) Mozilla devs don't like Firefox's rapid-release cycle

Mozilla's move to a rapid release process has been controversial. The company basically switched from a "when it is done or necessary" approach to a release cycle that would see a new major version release of the browser every six weeks, regardless of new features, improvements or fixes included in that release.

Mozilla's problem: part of the browser's user base does not welcome the change with open arms, as they feel that rapid release is to interrupting, unnecessary or breaks features or extensions that users grew accustomed to.

In short, too frequent updates are disliked mainly for the following reasons:

  • The updates break the user's workflow, as the browser needs to be restarted to complete the installation. This happens while the user works with the browser.
  • Updates, especially in the beginning, had the tendency to break stuff like interface elements -- features or extensions that users did not want to give up. This is actually one of the core reasons why some Firefox users block updates or refuse to update Firefox 3 or 4 versions to the latest release versions. Users who applied the updates are in a position where they have to spend time getting accustomed to new versions.
  • It often feels as if updates do not add any new features to the browser.

Mozilla developer Jono DiCarlo posted his take on the browser's release cycle a few days ago and came to the conclusion that it has impacted the browser's reputation in a negative way.

I've had this conversation with dozens of people across three continents. Not one person has had anything good to say about the rapid release process. Nearly 100% of my highly unscientific survey volunteered the information -- unasked, unprompted -- that the rapid release process had ruined Firefox for them.

Not surprisingly, Mozilla disagrees. After I posted, a Mozilla spokesman sent a statement:

Jono's analysis is interesting, but outdated. Regular Firefox updates are good news for users and for the Web but only when they don't interrupt what you're doing. Today's Firefox updates are applied in the background with no interruptions; they even keep your Firefox Add-ons compatible between releases. The result is that our users always have a fast, beautiful and secure browsing experience. Regular releases also let us get new features to our users faster than ever before, and we can listen to their feedback to improve things, just as we did with updates in 2011.

The spokesperson characterizes DiCarlo as a "former Firefox developer. He is not currently employed by Mozilla". Editor: Such a statement seeks to discredit DiCarlo, whose authority we don't dispute.

The Perception of Updates

According to DiCarlo, it was a decision made from the top down, pushing the positive aspects of the change while blending out criticism coming from part of the community. This raises the question why Mozilla did not listen to the community, which one would think is natural for a community-driven organization. DiCarlo sees the main reason in the different perception of updates. For developers, updates are a way of delivering new features, improvements and fixes to a program. For users he notes, it is "practically an act of aggression" , one that many try to avoid for as long as possible.

One of the biggest factors in this regard is the way updates are processed in the web browser. Firefox updates are intrusive, especially when compared to Google Chrome updates, which are more or less invisible to the user. And while that feature is coming to Firefox as well -- Firefox 15 is the release target -- damage has been done and part of the user base moved to Chrome because of that or indirect issues caused by the frequent updating of the browser.

Mozilla has done a lot to improve the process in the browser. Add-ons for instance default to compatible state in Firefox 10 and newer, which means that users experience less issues with broken add-ons since that version of the browser.

But the perception of updates is not the only reason for Mozilla to switch to a rapid release cycle. Google's Chrome browser picks up pace, with new major versions being released frequently for the browser. For Mozilla, it is a battle that the company cannot win if they do not be at least equivalent by all means, and that includes implementing its own rapid-update process to catch up to Google.

DiCarlo believes that this is exactly what drives many users to Chrome:

Ironically, by doing rapid releases poorly, we just made Firefox look like an inferior version of Chrome. And by pushing a never-ending stream of updates on people who didn't want them, we drove a lot of those people to Chrome; exactly what we were trying to prevent.

Closing Words

Mozilla is working diligently on improving the browser's updating module to make it less intrusive for the end user. Updates in Firefox 15 and onward should be less intrusive to the user, which in turn should change the perception of the process over time. The second big issue, that of add-on incompatibilities due to browser version increases, has already been addressed by Mozilla.

Will it be enough to gain back market share from Chrome? Have you been a Firefox user who switched to Chrome? If so, why did you switch, and what would have to happen to make you switch back?

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