Why Firefox's Rapid Release Schedule Is No Big Deal

Less than a week after the official release of the Firefox 5 browser, it's astonishing to see the brouhaha that has been made about Mozilla's new release schedule.

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Never mind that Google has already been using a very similar schedule for its Chrome browser for some time -- for some reason, the concept of more frequent updates to Firefox is causing an uproar I'm betting few could have predicted.

What's going on here? Let's take a closer look.

Anatomy of a Brouhaha

It all started when it became clear that Firefox 5's release effectively signaled an end to official support for Firefox 4, whose own record-setting launch took place only a few short months ago.

This was something Mozilla should certainly have communicated more clearly ahead of time, given that the decision had apparently been in the works for a while already.

In any case, the realization caused a few commentators -- most notably, consultant Michael Kaply -- to complain on the grounds that corporate users could have too much difficulty keeping up, given their traditional reliance on slow and methodical testing processes.

Also mentioned in the initial uproar was concern about add-ons, which may or may not be compatible with the new upgrade. (Of course, Mozilla says 84 percent of the most widely used add-ons in its own download library are compatible with Firefox 5, and it's a sure bet the others aren't far behind.)

Meanwhile, Firefox director Asa Dotzler made it clear enterprise users are not Mozilla's top concern anyway, prompting Microsoft to seize the moment with a pitch for its own Internet Explorer contender while exaggerating the controversy even further.

The bottom line is a whole lot of fuss about what actually shouldn't be that big a deal.

Four Accelerants

There are a few key reasons, however, why it has become a big deal:

1. It's New.

Though it's very similar to Google's schedule for Chrome, Mozilla's rapid schedule is new to Firefox, and people generally don't like change.

2. Lack of communication.

Mozilla should have made the support implications of its new release cycle more clear ahead of time. This should not have been discovered upon the release of Firefox 5; it should not have been a surprise.

3. The popularity of Firefox add-ons.

Where Google uses a very similar schedule for its own Chrome browser, as I noted above, add-ons for Chrome are much less widely used than they are for Firefox. In fact, one of Firefox's distinguishing features is the popularity of its add-ons. For that reason, the rapid cycle could prove to be a bigger deal for Firefox -- at least until add-on developers get up to speed. This is something Mozilla will need to address better on future releases, and its Jetpack program could help.

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4. Microsoft's enthusiasm.

Last but by no means least is the fact that, besides Microsoft's own zeal in publicizing and making the most of Mozilla's focus on consumers rather than enterprise users, the company also had the help of overzealous fans like ZDNet's Ed Bott, whose sensationalist headline read, "Mozilla to enterprise customers: 'Drop dead'." Last time I checked, choosing a market segment to focus on is most definitely not equivalent to telling all others to "drop dead." Honestly.

Beyond Enterprise Users

Today, however, we have two of the three major browsers on a rapid release schedule, not to mention numerous other software packages as well. I'm not sure corporate IT departments are going to be able to maintain their plodding adoption processes much further into the future.

Either way, I don't see why it should be an outrage that Mozilla isn't catering to corporate IT departments to begin with. Why says they have to? Why says they should? There's absolutely nothing wrong with choosing to stick with consumers--by far the majority of their installed base--and serving them well, according to Mozilla's vision.

Targeting a specific market segment, in fact, is generally considered a wiser business strategy than trying to be all things to all people.

In short, there's absolutely nothing to say that this approach is a "recipe for failure," as my colleague Tony Bradley sees it. It may not be the way to win the hearts of large, slow-moving corporate IT departments, but they are not the only ones that matter--despite what Microsoft and its fans might suggest. For Mozilla, focusing on consumers makes good sense.

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