Good news Firefox fans, that whole tempest in a teacup about version numbers being removed from the Firefox About dialog was, apparently, a misunderstanding. Firefox will continue to list its version number in the About Dialog box for the foreseeable future.
The problem started when Asa Dotzler, director of Firefox, filed a bug that would remove the version number from the about dialog. Dotzler believed that Mozilla’s user experience team had already made the decision, but as it turns out, they had not.
Alex Faaborg, a Principal Designer on Firefox and head of the UX team, jumped into the controversy surrounding the disappearing version numbers to say that, for now, Firefox would not be dropping the version number from the dialog box. He went on to address the real issue, why anyone cares whether or not Firefox has a version number at all:
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. The existence of version numbers is functionally kind of peripheral to that debate, but nonetheless served as an effective lightning rod for a growing storm of controversy.
Indeed few users, even those against the proposed change, really care whether the version number is in the About dialog or elsewhere, the real vitriol was directed at the idea that Firefox might not have a version number at all.
The versionless software model works just fine for web apps like Gmail or Facebook, but most people seem uncomfortable with the same idea applied to desktop apps like Firefox. After all, no one controls the web — no one cares which version of Gmail they’re using because no one has any control over it anyway. Desktop software on the other hand has always been something users can control and removing the version number feels to many like removing some of that control.
Web developers in particular have bristled at the idea of a versionless Firefox. One of the easiest ways to track down problems that Firefox users might have when they access your website is to start by asking which version of Firefox they’re using. Without that information it can be difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce and solve the problem.
Couple that with the fact that the new rapid release cycle is causing considerable pain for users by frequently breaking add-ons, and it’s clear that Mozilla is stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one hand the new rapid release model means version numbers are bumped every few weeks, sometimes breaking add-ons. On the other hand, removing the version number from the equation makes life more difficult for web developers (and add-on developers and anyone else who is trying to support Firefox users and needs to be aware of version numbers).
The simplest answer seems two-fold. First Firefox needs to rework its add-on system so that version number bumps do not break add-ons (this has been partially addressed for add-ons hosted by Mozilla). Then Firefox needs a more appropriate version number system, perhaps, as Faaborg suggests in his post, something based on dates. In that scenario the upcoming Firefox 7, scheduled for release in September, would be Firefox 2011.9 or something similar.
While a real solution to all of the issues created by Firefox’s transition to a rapid release cycle remains elusive, at least for now those upset by the loss of version numbers can rest easy.