Version warz

c: | f: /

Quick, quick, release, release. Can’t get left behind or people will think our browser is stagnating against the competition.

Enough already Firefox: I can’t keep up! Firefox 4, then 5, then 6 all in the space of a few months. And v6 looks and feels the same as v4. What’s going on?

It seems that with Firefox’s speedier release cycle, we’re seeing fewer features — most of which don’t deserve a major version number — appearing more quickly. While that’s somewhat admirable of an open source project, it does pose problems:

  1. Firefox seems like it’s forever checking my add-ons for compatibility and switching them off. I keep losing very useful features as the plugin authors try to keep pace.
  2. The higher the version number, the less confidence people begin to have in a product (“gee, it’s taken them 20 revisions to get it right?”)
  3. The “so what” attitude. If v6 looks the same as v4, why bother to upgrade?

Who’s counting?

Version rules are widely accepted as:

  • Change the major version number for big new features, or those that are not backwards-compatible with earlier versions
  • Change the minor revision number for improving or fixing features within a product family that retain backwards-compatibility
  • Change the dot release number for bug fixes or small changes, like typos

To their credit, Microsoft realised a long time ago that if they kept increasing the version number of their office software past a certain point, people were going to get suspicious. So they started using year numbers or snazzy names in their products instead. Word 2003, for instance, is listed as v11.5604.5606 if you care to look closely. “Word 11” just sounds rubbish as a product and starts to have negative connotations.

I’ve no idea what version number they’re up to now as I stopped bothering after about Word 2000: the feature set reached maturity at that point, as far as I was concerned. Every release since then I’ve tried and despised because the UI is appalling.

Hurry hurry

Firefox’s faster cycle seems to be to address the relentless march of Chrome. As Google’s browser eats into Firefox’s (and Microsoft’s) market share, someone decided that Firefox needed to have more rapid releases to keep up the perception that they are competing evenly.

And that’s all it is: perception. Firefox still has a problem compared to Google and, to some extent Microsoft who have also released two major browsers in a short space of time. While Mozilla have stopped advertising the version number on their website, the little indicator that pops up to tell you there’s a new version available displays the number. Also, people still rave about the Aurora / nightlies in terms of version number.

Here’s a quick test: what version of Chrome are you running? Bet you had to look under About to find it. What version of Firefox? Bet you know already, or at least have a very close inkling.

The Mozilla marketing folk either need to:

  1. ditch the customer-facing version numbers entirely and hide them in the About box
  2. switch to names for their major releases and make a song and dance about each one (like Apple)
  3. slow the hell down and do things properly

At the moment they’re doing a bit of everything and it’s going to ultimately harm their reputation. If I have to tell someone I’m using Firefox 38 in a year or two’s time, people are going to assume the previous 37 versions were utter crap, and Firefox will slowly flush itself down the toilet.

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