Culture war: IT and Mozilla can't hear each other

IT freaked out when Mozilla rolled out Firefox 5 months after Firefox 4, and Mozilla dismissed IT's fears. Both sides need to cool it

It sounds wimpy, but I have to say it: Can't we all just get along? The fight between enterprise IT and Mozilla over Firefox 5 is a classic culture clash in which neither side is capable of listening to the other. And both sides will lose if they don't cut it out.

The Web needs to move fast. It's as simple as that. If it weren't for the Mozilla Foundation and the competitive juice it injected into the Web, we'd all still be running an elderly version of IE -- and none of the innovations we've come to expect would exist. Indeed, we're still hampered by legacy browsers. How many websites still avoid new technologies because IE6 remains so common? IT needs to understand that.

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Mozilla isn't blameless. It wants to pretend that Firefox is just a consumer product, ignoring the fact that enterprises like IBM (with 500,000 users) have made it their default browser and have real concerns about compatibility and security. Telling IT to go bleep itself, as Firefox director Asa Dotzler did last week, is arrogant and really, really stupid.

It didn't help that Mozilla failed to signal in advance that the release of Firefox 5 also meant an end to security updates of the three-month-old Firefox 4. Caught flat-footed and feeling dissed, IT hands were furious.

Whose Web is it?
The Web is a shared resource. It's not just for consumers, it's not just for business, and it's not just for government. It's for everyone, and that's why browser technology -- which of course dictates what can be implemented on the Web -- is so critical.

As Peter Bright over at Ars Technica put it, the Web is like a network slowed down by an 802.11b device; it won't move faster than its slowest component. That's not an exact analogy, but the lingering presence of older browsers acts that way. It took forever for IE6 to fade away (it has a share of about 5 percent now), and while it was prevalent, huge numbers of websites marched to its excruciatingly slow beat.

Mozilla's Firefox and Google's Chrome (also on a very fast cycle) are pushing innovation, and there ought to be a way to keep those browsers inside the enterprise. Can testing be modified to recognize that whatever the version number, only limited functions have changed in the new version of the browser?

Or perhaps IT could explore other ways of delivering internal apps; maybe the browser isn't the best medium for that function. Security, of course, is a terribly serious issue, but maybe it's time for IT to find ways to accommodate today's rapid cycle of technological change. The same conservative, cultural resistance to change that's keeping smartphones and tablets out of the hands of enterprise employees could have the effect of keeping the best browsers off their desks as well. IT is becoming consumerized, and rapid upgrades are part of that.

Then of course there's the add-on issue. With Firefox so dependent on add-ons, users hate it when they break after an upgrade and developers don't want to spend huge amounts of time tweaking existing products. There's been lots of yelling about this issue, but it's not as dire as you might think. According to Justin Scott, who manages the Firefox add-on program, 256 add-ons compatible with Firefox 4 broke when used with Firefox 5 -- annoying, yes, and frustrating (it happened to me, so I know), but not cataclysmic.

Mozilla may be getting the message
The add-on issue is real, and it's not clear everyone at Mozilla gives it proper due. Consider the comment by Asa Dotzler, community coordinator for Firefox marketing projects, on a Mozilla discussion thread was stunning: "If they're going to tell their users to enable their disabled corporate-supplied extension, they should instead just rev the extension version, push an extension update, and cross their fingers."

Cross their fingers? Wow. I suspect Dotzler got a good slap on the wrist for that clueless remark, but much more important are the signs that Mozilla heard the outrage and is giving it some real thought.

For example: "The Mozilla Community has focused our efforts on the needs of the individual user, and prioritized the product roadmap and features accordingly," wrote Jay Sullivan, Mozilla's vice president of products, in a post on the Mozilla blog. "However, as is the case with many technologies, loyal Firefox users and their IT departments have sought to bring Firefox into their places of work."

Open source software, Sullivan wrote, "is well-suited to these challenges, as interested parties can come together to build what is needed." He added, "We look forward to continuing the dialog, and will post updates as they become available."

After Sullivan posted, Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs summed it up nicely on Twitter: "Enterprises are built of people, and Mozilla is fundamentally about people. We support Firefox users wherever they are."

Yes, those are words. IT wants action. But Mozilla has been listening, while IT execs are tossing Molotov cocktails around the Web. Cut out the culture war and get talking, we'll all be better off.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here (post them here) so that all our readers can share them, or reach me at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net. Follow me on Twitter at BSnyderSF.

This article, "Culture war: IT and Mozilla can't hear each other," was originally published by InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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