Firefox on the hot seat for browser versioning

Mozilla is looking at eliminating the concept of versions from Firefox, but it's a path IT cannot walk

Firefox maker Mozilla recently floated the idea of eliminating the version number from the browser's About tab. "We're moving to a more Web-like convention where it's simply not important what version you're using as long as it's the latest version," said Firefox director Asa Dotzler on a thread in the mozilla.dev.usability discussion group on Sunday. "We have a goal to make version numbers irrelevant to our consumer audience."

The idea of making version numbers irrelevant in the minds of users is a nod to Google's Chrome (as was Mozilla's decision to speed up the Firefox release cycle). In a recent meeting with folks from Google, I was told that the company would like to do away with the entire concept of versioning in its software offerings, preferring that users look at Chrome as a single application that gets ongoing upgrades, as opposed to each discrete version being its own thing.

The other side of the coin is Microsoft, which comes from an installed software legacy and has indicated no interest in pursuing this line of thinking. It doesn't even include slipstreaming (aka silent upgrades) for its Internet Explorer browser, and while Firefox and Chrome have little integration with existing installed apps, Microsoft has often introduced proprietary twists on Web standards (think ActiveX controls). The unhappy result is that Web apps built for IE can become tied to a specific version of the browser for years to come. A decade later, Internet Explorer 6 still lives!

As Mozilla ponders following Google into eliminating versions, the question must be asked: Is a versionless browser a good idea? Not for businesses it isn't.

Google can afford to do away with versions because Chrome is an upstart for which businesses haven't really built anything yet. Firefox is not in the same position. When businesses test out new Web apps, the two most popular browsers they use are IE and Firefox. The browser has solid enterprise support, and if Mozilla decides to go completely versionless (and not put businesses on a separate, version-including release path), it could very well lose that support.

So instead of copycatting Google again, Mozilla should take its cue from Microsoft on this issue and keep its versions alive.

Business customers need to test each version of a browser, and they need to be able to shift to a new version at their own pace. When Mozilla rolled out Firefox 5 just as enterprises got comfortable with Firefox 4, it suffered serious backlash. That backlash will only get worse if Firefox goes versionless -- users will have no way of reverting if an upgrade breaks a critical technology, as upgrades often do. This is simply unacceptable for corporate users; if Firefox wishes to court them and keep them, it should do the right thing and keep versioning in place.

This article, "Firefox on the hot seat for browser versioning," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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