Firefox follows Chrome lead, eyes faster releases

Not copying Chrome, says Mozilla exec, just wants to get features in users' hands faster

Once Firefox 4 is out the door next week, Mozilla will likely shift to a faster development cycle for its browser, one that resembles the way Google rolls out a constant line of updates for Chrome.

But don't ask Mozilla if it's copying its rival.

"No one invented fast," said Johnathan Nightingale, director of Firefox development, when asked whether Mozilla's new faster-paced scheme was a response to Google. "We're developers, we want to get our features out there as quickly as possible."

According to a detailed proposal published earlier this week, Mozilla is considering a multi-channel scheme where new features are added to a series of versions -- nightly, experimental, beta and Firefox -- each of which feeds into the next-most-stable build until a polished edition is released.

The pace should result in a new Firefox every 16 weeks, meaning that Mozilla will ship Firefox 5 and 6, perhaps even Firefox 7, during 2011.

Google uses a similar process to continually feed features to Chrome, relying on a four-channel line of development: nightly, dev, beta and stable. The result? A new version of Chrome every six to eight weeks.

Al Hilwa, an analyst with IDC, praised Mozilla's plan. "It is great to see Mozilla looking hard at streamlining their development to achieve a faster release cycle," said Hilwa. "There are a lot of benefits to smoothing and streamlining the development process to release it from the tyranny of dates."

But Mozilla's clearly reacting to the pressure from Chrome, Hilwa added. "Chrome's development model has been a successful experiment in terms of getting production releases with improvements and new features out quickly and much faster than in the past," Hilwa said. "This is causing waves in the industry, specifically for direct competitors."

The change Firefox users would immediately notice under the faster scheme is that new features will regularly appear in the browser, rather than waiting for months while work on the next edition is completed.

"Each release happens regardless of whether a given feature is ready, and releases are not delayed to wait for a feature to stabilize," said the planning document, which was posted by Firefox developer Rob Sayre. "The goal of the process is to provide regular improvements to users without disrupting longer term work."

"'Switch to tabs' was done in September," said Nightingale, referring to a new feature that will debut in Firefox 4 when it launches next Tuesday. "That killed [the feature's developers], having to wait."

Google announced a speedier development cycle in July 2010, when a Chrome program manager explained that the change meant "if a given feature is not complete, it will simply ride on the next release train when it's ready."

Since then, Google has issued five new "stable" versions of the browser, most recently Chrome 10 last week.

Mozilla's move would be a major departure for the open-source company. Firefox 4, for example, was in development for over a year, while Firefox 3.6 took about the same amount of time to complete.

The company has experimented with delivering less ambitious, but faster upgrades before, although not with much success. In January 2010, for example, Mozilla shipped Firefox 3.6, a relatively minor update that was to be quickly followed by Firefox 3.7. However, the company ended up dropping Firefox 3.7 from the schedule, and decided instead to introduce new features in its security patch updates.

Mozilla did the latter with June 2010's Firefox 3.6.4, which shipped with a new crash protection feature, but did not use the tactic again.

To replicate Chrome's rapid release schedule, said Sayre's planning document, Firefox will need to include a "silent update" feature that automatically delivers upgrades in the background, a practice Google uses for its browser. "This proposal also requires changes to our software update behavior to make them happen more automatically in the background and interrupt the user less often," said Sayre.

Nightingale, however, denied that silent updates was a requirement for the faster pace.

In August 2010, Mozilla had listed silent updates as one of the features that would make it into Firefox 4. But later, the company yanked the feature from the browser. In an interview Wednesday, Nightingale confirmed that silent updates didn't make it into the final of Firefox 4, and said developers are still working on the tool.

"We have a lot of patches [for silent update] under way," said Nightingale.

It's unclear how Mozilla will ship Firefox security updates if it pulls the trigger on the frequent-update plan, or how long the company will support earlier editions. Currently, Mozilla frequently delivers Firefox patches: In 2010, for instance, it shipped 13 security updates for Firefox 3.6, which launched in January of that year.

Nightingale said discussions are continuing about how best to serve up security fixes for Firefox in a faster-paced development process.

Google delivers Chrome patches with the stable version of the browser, which is updated every few weeks.

Mozilla's plan hasn't been formally adopted, but Nightingale hinted it would be. "Smaller, tighter releases will motivate all of us," he said yesterday.

The company will roll out Firefox 4 next week, and if it adopts the faster schedule, will start the clock on Firefox 5 "very soon" after, said Sayre.

Firefox 5 could ship as early as mid-June, according to Mozilla's plan.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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