Fast Firefox Updates Will Downplay Version Numbers

Mark Long,

The new Firefox 6 browser unleashed by Mozilla on Tuesday is the first in a series of updates that are slated to come at six-week intervals. According to Mozilla, the accelerated schedule means any new feature added by developers can be in the hands of users in 12 to 18 weeks instead of months or years.

Though Mozilla's new strategy for promoting the rapid pace of innovation is good news for users, many developers are unhappy about the organization's decision to downplay the significance of browser version numbers. According to Mozilla product evangelist Aza Dotzler, the phasing out of version numbers in Firefox is well under way -- though still incomplete.

"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,'" Dotzler wrote at Bugzilla -- the bug-tracking page used by developers participating in Mozilla projects. "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."

Six-Week Release Cycle

Dotzler added that if a user ever needs the full version information for the Firefox browser in use, "they can get it from about: support." Still, a number of Firefox developers have expressed opposition to phasing out the display of Firefox browser version numbers in a way that is easily accessible to consumers.

"Help->about has been the place for the version number in pretty much every program with a menu for decades," responded Firefox developer Dave Garrett. "This is where it belongs, where people look for it, and there is no real benefit to remove it."

Each release in Mozilla's Firefox cycle represents six weeks of initial development time, followed by two more six-week periods -- called Aurora and Beta -- for completely stabilizing commercial Firefox releases. "When that happens, yet another Firefox will enter Beta, and so on," noted Director of Firefox Engineering Jonathan Nightingale in a blog.

Since Mozilla is planning to issue a new release of Firefox every six weeks, version numbers may prove meaningless -- especially when the user's browser is updated automatically. "Whatever adjustments we make, it's clear that rapid release is a major improvement in our ability to respond to the needs of our users and the web," Nightingale observed.

Already Well Under Way

Mozilla's decision to abandon version numbers is already evident on the Future of Firefox web page at the Firefox download site. This is the place where browser aficionados can download and test the currently available Aurora and Beta versions for PCs as well as mobile devices.

The download buttons for the currently available Aurora and Beta test builds do not identify any version numbers. Though this week's commercial release of Firefox 6 provides the version number and update status of the browser in the about dialog window, it appears that future Firefox releases will only provide users with the current update status of their browsers.

"Telling the user when the last check happened gives them confidence that Firefox is not just putting some static text there telling them they're up to date, but that Firefox actually checked and is sure they are up to date," Dotzler said.