Fans of the Firefox browser have had their heads spinning since spring: first there was the release of Firefox 4, followed in June with Firefox 5 and then just a few weeks ago Firefox 6 hit the streets. The integer-level updates in Firefox’s version numbers are part of the Mozilla Foundation’s rapid release program that’s intended to get new technologies out to users more quickly; however, the rapid release schedule has also generated quite a lot of backlash. Most Firefox users would be hard-pressed to explain the differences between Firefox 4 and Firefox 6: comparatively little has changed on the surface, leading folks to wonder why they’re always getting major new versions—which often seem to break their favorite add-ons. Folks who have to manage IT departments, herds of corporate computers, educational labs, or other groups of systems have their own headaches: no sooner do they start work trying to get a new version of Firefox tested and validated than they have to throw all that work out and start over with a new version.
Mitchell Baker, chair of the Mozilla Foundation, admits that the new rapid release schedule poses difficulties for some folks. But, while Mozilla will work to smooth over some of the rough spots, the group is not going to back away from the rapid release schedule.
“There is work to be done to make the rapid release process smoother and hopefully more useful to more of our userbase,” Mitchell wrote in a blog post. “Before Mozilla instituted the rapid release process, we would sometimes have new capabilities ready for nearly a year before we could deliver them to people. [..] Philosophically, I do not believe a product that moves at the speed of traditional desktop software can be effective at enabling an Internet where things happen in real time.”
Mozilla has consistently noted that its efforts focus on individual Internet users, not enterprise or institutional users which have complicated audit and authorization processes for software users in their organizations. But in addition to IT departments, individual end-users have expressed frustration with the rapid release schedule because add-ons and utilities used with Firefox often need to be updated with each major revision, creating a complicated chain of updates users must navigate every few months.
“We need to listen carefully to those who are experiencing difficulties. We need to be creative and try to find practical ways of alleviating these difficulties if we can,” Mitchell wrote. “Despite this, I believe the rapid release process is the right direction.”