File Under: Browsers

Firefox: The Emperor Wears No Versions

Mozilla has created a stir in the Firefox community by suggesting that the version number ought to be eliminated. The version number currently shown in Firefox’s "About" dialog has been filed as a bug. Instead of a version number Mozilla simply wants the box to read something like "Firefox checked for updates 20 minutes ago, you are running the latest version." Mozilla believes that eliminating the version number will reduce user confusion.

As is witnessed by an increasingly hostile thread in the mozilla.dev.usability group, pretty much everyone outside Mozilla seems to think eliminating the version number is a bad idea. After all, even Google Chrome, the browser from which Firefox has borrowed much of its new look and its new rapid release cycle, still offers a version number.

So why does Mozilla want to ditch the version number? In the words of Asa Dotzler, director of Firefox, "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. We have a goal to make version numbers irrelevant to our consumer audience."

We have a news flash for Mozilla: version numbers have always been irrelevant to your consumer audience. They have, however, always been very relevant to your developer audience. And version numbers are, whether it’s Windows, OS X or Linux, found in the About dialog. As Barry Able writes at one point in the now very lengthy thread, "I’d like to paraphrase the country song and ask, ‘What part of ‘about’ don’t you understand?’ This box is named ‘About’ because it provides information ‘about’ the application."

Developer Dave Garrett responded to Dotzler writing, "I don’t claim that showing the version number is the most important thing in the world, just that the about dialog is where it belongs and trying to change that feels to some of us like a fight…that doesn’t need to be."

Indeed removing the version number from the About dialog isn’t the point, but that small change is part of a larger goal — burying the version number so that Firefox users never know which version they’re using — and that goal is angering many Firefox users. The versionless software model works well for web apps — like Gmail or Facebook — but Firefox is not Gmail. No matter how much Firefox wants to ape web apps, it’s not a web app. In the eyes of most users installed software is judged by a different set of standards.

Even many who aren’t bothered by the move to the rapid release schedule Mozilla has adopted from Chrome, stop short of embracing a completely versionless Firefox. "While I understand that the UX team wants to make version numbers less important," writes Tyler Downer, "removing them from the About window is not the answer."

So what is the answer? Maybe the Chrome web browser.

Increasingly that seems to be where web developers are going, leaving Firefox for Chrome or Chromium (the open source version of Chrome). According to StatCounter, Firefox’s worldwide usage stats have been slightly, but steadily, declining since September 2010.

Here at Webmonkey Firefox has been falling much faster of late, losing roughly 3 percent every month for the last three months (with Chrome picking up the majority of those users). Three months ago happens to roughly correspond to Mozilla’s first rapid release cycle offering, Firefox 5.

With Firefox losing ground to Chrome across the board, snubbing anyone, let alone the web developers who were no small part of Firefox’s initial success, seems like a misguided strategy. But misguided or no, it seems to be the strategy Mozilla is embracing.

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