Business Software

Firefox Version Numbers Are Here to Stay, Mozilla Says

Much the way Mozilla was recently forced to change course back in June in response to outcry against its apparent disregard for business users, so the maker of the popular Firefox browser this week announced that its controversial idea of moving the software's version number wouldn't be happening after all.

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For those who missed it, the original suggestion was for Firefox to stop providing a version number in its “About” dialog box. Instead, beginning in some upcoming version, the About window would instead say something like, "Firefox checked for updates 20 minutes ago; you are running the latest release."

Although full version information would still have been available in Firefox's Help section, many reacted strongly against the idea.

'There Was a Miscommunication'

“I think the reason this debate became so emotional is that some people want to change client side software to behave like the Web (where the user has no control over version), and some people simply aren't comfortable with that model,” wrote Alex Faaborg, a principal designer on the Firefox team, on the Mozilla developers' usability forum last weekend.

Firefox Product Manager Asa Dotzler was the one who originally voiced the idea on the forum, but in fact, it hadn't yet been decided upon, Faaborg noted.

“There was a miscommunication inside of the UX team, and Asa to his credit, adamantly defended us,” he explained. “I really appreciate Asa giving us the authority and deferring to our decision, but in this case we didn't have the design sorted out enough ahead of time and we basically set him up.”

Numerous personal attacks were apparently directed at Dotzler in the meantime, prompting Faaborg to post an explicit request that critics “attack things not people.”

Later in the week, Faaborg confirmed one more time that “there are no plans to adjust the version number. It will remain in its current place in the about window, and we are going to continue with the current numbering scheme.”

'The Fourth Release of 2012'

I thought the whole original controversy was a bit of a tempest in a teapot, as I noted when I covered it earlier this month, particularly given that the information would still have been available, and that Google's Chrome does something similar.

Still, I can see that some would take such a change as a loss of control over what is still, after all, desktop software. Among all the discussion this past week, Faaborg actually proposes a more time-based numbering strategy for versions--referring to them as "the fourth release of 2012," for instance--and that seems like it could be a good compromise down the road.

It reminds me, in fact, of the way Ubuntu Linux versions are numbered 11.04 for an April 2011 release and 11.10 for an October 2011 release, for example.

'We Sometimes Create Confusion'

In any case, added to the ongoing controversy over Firefox's new rapid release cycle, this latest uproar underscores the importance of clear communication when using an open and collaborative work approach the way Mozilla does.

As Faaborg notes in the Mozilla developers' usability forum, “an attribute of working entirely in the open is that we sometimes create significant confusion as we discuss design work that is in progress. However the bright side is that there is never a shortage of feedback.”

Ultimately, I would add, the open approach will also lead to a product that's closer to what users actually want.

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