The Pitfalls of Firefox’s Rapid Release Cycle [Editorial]
By on August 25th, 2011

So why is Mozilla using the rapid release cycle? It seems to offer very little benefit and is misleading, annoying, and counterproductive. This is what Asa Dotzler, product manager for Firefox, had to say:

I can give you an example that may help illustrate the value in faster release cycles. In June of 2010, Mozilla engineers added WebM support to Firefox’s HTML5 >video< tag. But users and the Web and Web developers did not see that in a shipping version of Firefox for more than 9 months when Firefox 4 finally shipped.

That delay was bad for the Web and bad for the users. When you only ship a feature when all other features scheduled for a release are complete, your schedule can grow, in the case of Firefox, to a year or two.

We’ve moved to a new cadence that allows us to ship a feature when it’s ready, even if dozens of other important features aren’t yet complete.

If we’d have been on this faster release cadence, we could have delivered WebM to the world 8 or 9 months earlier, but because we were waiting on a new JavaScript engine and a new toolbar design and a dozen other important features — all of which needed to be completed before we could ship Firefox 4, users and developers didn’t get WebM until then.

Dotzler certainly makes a very valid point. It’s better to push through a major new feature like WebM as soon as it is ready, rather than waiting for all of the other new features to be ready. However, Firefox’s current release cycle can’t really be called feature driven. Both Firefox 5 and Firefox 6 didn’t contain any feature that needed to be pushed through as soon as possible.

Mozilla is aware that their new rapid release system breaks the established version numbering system. Unfortunately, the solution that Mozilla is considering implementing is rather insincere. Mozilla will be dropping the version number information from the Help –> About dialogue box, where almost all applications are typically expected to house the version and build information. Here’s Dotzler’s Bugzilla submission on the impending change.

When a user opens the About window for Firefox, the window should say something like “Firefox checked for updates 20 minutes ago, you are running the latest release.”
It is important to say when the last check happened and ideally to do the check when the dialog is launched so that time is very near and to drop the version and simply tell them they’re on the latest or not.
If a user needs the full version information they can get it from about:support.

Firefox-Release-Channels

In Mozilla’s bizzaro world, the best way to solve a problem seems to be by brushing the symptoms under the carpet rather than dealing with the root cause of the problem. Dave Garret explained the folly of hiding version numbers from the “About” dialogue box succinctly.

The about dialog is essentially a box designed for the sole purpose of housing the application developer and version. I am sorry to break it to you, though, even if having the version in the about dialog is a UX problem in any way, virtually all other applications out there beg to differ. Even my mother knows this is where you look up what version of a program you’re using. You’re going up against established UX that spans much time and across OSes.
The greater point here is that any gain that could be made trying to hide the version is not worth the expected confusion of people no (sic) being able to find it in the same place every other application has it, and not worth the eventual flame storm this will create.

Mozilla’s problem is not that its version number is soon going to be insanely high. Its problem is that it is confusing users by labeling minor releases as major ones, and it is alienating enterprise users by refusing to provide long term support. If delivering features is the ultimate aim of the faster release cycle, then the release cycle needs to be flexible enough to be determined by the completion of new features rather than being strictly time bound. At the very least, there is no reason why they can’t have four minor releases and two major releases per year, instead of the current eight to nine annual major releases. If Mozilla wants to address the real problem then they will have to get the balance between release speed and features right.

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Author: Pallab De Google Profile for Pallab De
Pallab De is a blogger from India who has a soft spot for anything techie. He loves trying out new software and spends most of his day breaking and fixing his PC. Pallab loves participating in the social web; he has been active in technology forums since he was a teenager and is an active user of both twitter (@indyan) and facebook .

Pallab De has written and can be contacted at pallab@techie-buzz.com.

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