Firefox numbering debate is a tempest in a teapot

By Katherine Noyes, PCWorld

Mozilla generated a virtual storm of controversy with the introduction of its new, Chrome-like rapid release schedule for Firefox earlier this year, and now it seems to be stirring up a fresh hornet's nest with practically every move it makes.

Case in point: version numbering. Last weekend quite a debate arose on a Mozilla developers' forum when it was suggested that Firefox stop providing a version number in its "About" dialog box.

Under that new scenario -- which is not part of the new Firefox 6 but would be introduced in a future version -- the About window would instead say something like, "Firefox checked for updates 20 minutes ago, you are running the latest release." Full version information would still be available, however, from Firefox's Help, Troubleshooting menu.

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"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," Firefox Product Manager Asa Dotzler wrote by way of explanation in the Mozilla developers' usability forum. "We're also already in a new system where there is no supported version except the latest version, so the overwhelming majority of users will be on that latest version and for them, the most important thing isn't the number of the release. The most important thing is confidence that they're on the latest release. That's what the About dialog will give them."

Makes sense to me. Nonetheless, there's been quite a fuss kicked up about it all, and Dotzler has reportedly even reached out to several press outlets to clarify that version numbers won't be unavailable, but rather just accessible in a different place.

Is this a big deal? Should users or IT departments freak out? I hardly think so. Here's why.

1. It's Still There

First and foremost, this isn't a matter of taking something away. It's just a matter of moving it. Why the fuss? It will still be there when you need it -- which, incidentally, I doubt most ever will.

As Dotzler notes, on the new Firefox schedule -- which, to repeat, is pretty much just like Chrome's now -- the number no longer really matters. In fact, in this new world of continuous and automatic updates, it can create some confusion, when all anyone should really care about is that they're on the latest, supported release.

2. Reflecting Reality

Again, in this new, continuously evolving world of Web browsers, version numbers don't actually mean much anymore -- what matters is simply that you stay up to date. Making a big deal out of those numbers, however, gives them more importance than they deserve.

The world seems to be used to Google's fluid transitioning from one Chrome release to another, but now that Firefox is doing it too, some people accustomed to its previous ways are surprised that each successive version doesn't add more to the preceding one.

That's missing the point. Rapid releases are keeping us all better updated all the time -- without having to wait for big, incremental upgrades -- and updates are happening automatically. Using numbers, however, leads some to expect the monumental upgrades of yore -- or at least some distinction between "major" and "minor" releases.

In light of the continuous release model, such concepts are more or less obsolete, so downplaying numbers makes a lot of sense.

3. Chrome Does It

So, just to hammer this home one more time, Firefox's de-emphasis of version numbers is far from unique. It's essentially what Google has been doing with Chrome for some time, and nobody on that browser seems to care.

Most Chrome users, in fact, couldn't tell you what "version" they're using, and it totally doesn't matter, because version numbers no longer mean much of anything in this rapidly updating arena. Are you up to date? Good, then that's all you really need to know.

4. Nothing Is Lost

One of the more popular criticisms of this new strategy seems to involve painting a picture of a hapless user trying to get support for Firefox but suddenly unable to find out what version they're on.

Once again: that information will still be there, just in a different spot. Much more relevant for troubleshooting purposes, however, is knowing that they're up to date. If they are, that pretty much says it all.

It's not that I have any particular interest in seeing this version information moved; as a Firefox user myself, I don't especially care where it's put, and I doubt many others will, either.

To make such a huge deal out of such a small and increasingly irrelevant thing, however, seems way out of proportion. You'll always be able to get at that version information, if you actually need it. But I'm betting few ever will.

Reprinted with permission from Story copyright 2011 PC World Communications. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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