Ex-Mozilla worker rails against developers' love of constant change, frequent updates

Mozilla calls criticism 'outdated,' rejects idea it takes users for granted

When a former Mozilla employee knocked the company's accelerated release schedule as having "killed Firefox's reputation," he got more than he bargained for.

Comments by Jono Xia in a July 5 post to his personal blog quickly spread across the Web, with headlines ranging from "Firefox Developer: 'Everyone Hates Firefox Updates'" to "Firefox: Can this Web browser be saved?" Most of those blogs and news stories focused on the fact that Xia, as an insider, was confirming what many frustrated Firefox users have said for over a year: Frequent updates are a pain.

But things got lost in translation, Xia said.

"My point is that software developers and users come from very different perspectives, and that software developers always see an update as a good thing," said Xia last week in an email reply to Computerworld questions. "We're biased, because we have an emotional attachment to our own work, towards thinking that the next update is going to be the greatest thing ever. I wish developers throughout the industry would recognize the cost that we inflict upon users because of our obsession with constant change."

But that's not what people heard or read, said Xia, who joined Mozilla in 2008, where he worked at Mozilla Labs until 2010, when he moved to the User Research team. Xia left Mozilla last month.

"That's what I was trying to say. Unfortunately that point seems to have gotten lost in the noise," said Xia. "I guess 'Firefox developer says Firefox suxxx' makes irresistible link bait -- but it's not true."

But Jono, whose surname was incorrectly identified as DiCarlo in most accounts -- he changed it to Xia in 2009 when he married -- had damned frequent updates by software in general, and by Firefox specifically.

"So many companies release updates which radically change the interface for no significant gain," he wrote in the July 5 post. "I've come to the extremely humbling realization that the single best thing most companies could do to improve usability is to stop changing the UI [user interface] so often. There's no UI better than one you already know, and no UI worse than one you thought you knew but now have to relearn."

Xia acknowledged that updates are necessary -- if for no other reason then to patch security vulnerabilities -- but criticized those that change the interface or add new features.

He also condemned Mozilla for its implementation of the new development tempo -- called "rapid release" by most -- that the company first deployed in June 2011 with Firefox 5.

"By doing rapid releases poorly, we just made Firefox look like an inferior version of Chrome," Xia said. "And by pushing a never-ending stream of updates on people who didn't want them, we drove a lot of those people to Chrome, exactly what we were trying to prevent."

When Mozilla introduced its new schedule in the spring of 2011, it denied it was copying Chrome, the Google browser that silently updates itself multiple times each month.

Xia called out add-on incompatibilities and an intrusive upgrade process as the two major problems with frequent Firefox updates, with Mozilla's refusal to allow users to easily opt out of the every-six-week changes as a close third.

All of Xia's criticisms had been voiced before by others, including IT administrators responsible for supporting Firefox in large companies; their complaints drove Mozilla to create a business-oriented build, dubbed "Extended Support Release," or ESR, that keeps the UI and feature set static for over a year.

Some critics went as far as to accuse the company's decision-makers of arrogance, of essentially saying, "We know better," and refusing to reconsider the dramatic cadence shift.

Xia accused Mozilla of taking its users for granted. "[Software companies] start treating their users as pawns in a battle against some other company. Gotta copy everything the other company does, or risk falling behind. So they end up doing everything the other company does whether the users want it or not, and probably doing a crappy job to boot [emphasis in original]."

Atul Varma, whose LinkedIn account identifies him as a Mozilla engineer in the company's Lab group, echoed Xia's rebuke of rapid updates and aimed similar barbs at his employer.

"What most struck me ... was a complete lack of empathy for people who might want to 'stay where they were' and not upgrade to the latest version of our flagship product," Varma said on his own blog July 6. "Whenever someone asked a question like, 'What if the user wants to stay on the old version of Firefox?' the response was unequivocally that said user must be delusional: No one should ever want to stay on an old version of a product."

Mozilla reacted to Xia's and Varma's criticisms both officially and unofficially.

"Jono's analysis is interesting, but outdated," the company said in a statement issued to The Verge last week. "Today's Firefox updates are applied in the background with no interruptions; they even keep your Firefox add-ons compatible between releases."

In that statement, Mozilla also repeated the argument it's used since it began considering a shorter release cycle -- that more frequent updates provide new features faster, as they're added upon completion rather than held until the next major upgrade. In the past, major upgrades were shipped about once a year.

Johnathan Nightingale, director of Firefox engineering, used his personal blog to also respond, denying that Mozilla takes its users for granted, as Xia claimed.

"Nonsense. I don't know how else to say it," said Nightingale about the charge. "In a very literal way, it just doesn't make sense for a non-profit organization devoted to user choice and empowerment on the Web to take users for granted. The impact of these changes on our users was a topic of daily conversation, and indeed, clearly, remains one."

Nightingale did acknowledge that the shift to a faster cadence would have gone down better with users if Mozilla had streamlined the process from the start. Instead, Mozilla built a silent update mechanism piecemeal, starting in January 2012 -- more than half a year after the rapid release began -- and putting the last major component into place in April. (The final bits of silent updating are now slated to ship with Firefox 15 and Firefox 17, the editions that will debut in August and November.)

Xia did not retract his comments, but in a follow-up blog he issued a blanket apology to former colleagues. "I'm deeply sorry if the result of my careless speech has been to make their jobs harder," he wrote on Friday.

He also said he is still a Firefox user, and noted -- as he had in the initial July 5 post -- that he thought the browser's updates "have been much less obtrusive" of late.

But he stuck to this primary point: Software developers don't understand how much users detest updates, even good ones.

"The whole software industry needs to learn some humility," Xia said in his email to Computerworld. "It's full of people who think their next Internet widget is going to be the salvation of humanity. It's not; it's just a tool we're offering to people in the hopes they find it useful. And a tool isn't very useful if the way you used it yesterday suddenly doesn't work tomorrow."

There is circumstantial evidence that Firefox's move has not stemmed the slide of the browser's usage share, which some -- though Mozilla did not make the claim -- expected. According to Web metrics company Net Applications, Firefox lost 2.9 percentage points of share in the 12 months since the release of Firefox 5, the first rapid release edition; in the 12 months before that, Firefox fell 1.5 points.

Irish measurement firm StatCounter's figures were similar: Firefox lost 3.8 percentage points in the 12 months after Firefox 5's debut, while during the 12 months before, it fell 2.8 points.

Firefox owned a 20.1% share in June, Net Applications said, edging Chrome for second place; StatCounter put it in third, with 24.6%.

Usage statistics can't reveal whether Firefox's accelerated decline was caused by rapid releases, or whether Chrome's corresponding increase was, as Xia maintained, fueled by dissatisfied Firefox users. However, in the last 12 months, Chrome's share did climb by 5.2 percentage points, to 19.1%, in Net Applications' accounting, and increased by 4 points to 32.8% in StatCounter's estimate.

Changing browsers isn't the answer, Xia maintained. "There isn't another browser that manages updates better," he told Computerworld. "Apple, Google, and Microsoft all have the same attitude, that they should get to decide what versions of software their users are running."

The tension between developers and users on the topic may never dissipate -- Xia said he didn't expect "Silicon Valley culture and its delusions of grandeur to change any time soon" -- but Xia and Varma were adamant that it should be resolved, and that developers are the ones who needed to bend.

"I and most people I know outside of the software industry view upgrades as potential attacks on our productivity, not as shiny new experiences," said Varma.

Xia was even more blunt. "We assumed our users loved Firefox enough that they would put up with the irritation of updates in order to have a better product," he said in his July 5 blog. "[But] your users do not 'love' your software. Your users are temporarily tolerating your software because it's the least horrible option they have -- for now -- to meet some need. Developers have an emotional connection to the project; users don't."

Mozilla plans to ship Firefox 14, the latest in its rapid release line, early Tuesday, July 17.

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

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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