Mozilla has committed to a more aggressive release schedule for the Firefox web browser. There were nearly three years between the launch of Firefox 3 and Firefox 4, but Firefox 5 is expected to be introduced in a matter of months at the end of June. There are some benefits to the rapid release schedule, but also some potential pitfalls.
The web is a rapidly changing environment. HTML may still be the foundation upon which the web is built, but a lot has happened since the summer of 2008. Hardware has changed and evolved, new web technologies have been introduced, and the way users interact with the web and what they expect from a browser have all changed dramatically in those three years.
The development cycle proposed by Mozilla seems more like an incremental update cycle. But, unlike traditional software increments that tend to primarily address bugs or flaws in the major release, the new Firefox development cycle will quickly incorporate new features and technologies so that each overlapping 18 week release of Firefox will be a major release. Firefox 5 should be out in June, followed by Firefox 6 possibly by mid-August.
Back in November, a Microsoft IEBlog post criticised the nightly updates development process used by Mozilla for Firefox development. "The cadence of IE Platform Previews reflects our point of view: the point of a browser is to run actual websites, not just benchmarks or samples that are hardwired for one browser."
The post added, "Twenty four hours of elapsed time is rarely meaningful. "Nightlies" vary widely in performance and quality, and may not run actual websites successfully. Those daily builds are of some interest to a small audience of "insider" enthusiasts who often take activity (even incrementing the version number) as progress."
While the aggressive development schedule will help keep Firefox on the cutting edge, and allow it to adapt quickly to changes in web technologies and usage patterns, it might also be confusing for end users to keep up with. Although Mozilla seems to have a pretty successful programme of pushing the latest version out to all Firefox users.
There are many variations of Firefox on the browser market share radar, but only the currently pushed release from Mozilla has any market share worth mentioning. Obviously Mozilla has a very effective model for moving users to the current official release of the Firefox browser.
Rivals like to blast Microsoft for the integration of Internet Explorer with the Windows operating system, and Microsoft's ability to force the latest version on users through automatic updates, but the tenacity of IE6 and even IE7 is a testament to just how ineffective that 'unfair advantage' really is. Microsoft began pushing IE8 as an Automatic Update in April of 2009, yet two years later IE6 and IE7 are still the third and fourth place browser versions, and have a combined market share only three percentage points less than Firefox as a whole.
Actually, the tenacity of IE6 points to a larger issue which affects Internet Explorer, but also has a significant impact on rival browsers like Firefox and Chrome: business use. This is perhaps the biggest threat to the success of Firefox (or Chrome) due to the rapid release schedule.
Automatic updates and pushing the latest version out may work fine for consumers, but businesses are much slower to adapt and adopt new applications. Part of the reason that it is so hard to kill IE6 is that businesses built internal web applications to be compatible with IE6, they are invested in that outdated browser platform and reluctant to invest the time, money and effort necessary to test and deploy a more current browser. Imagine how difficult it will be to introduce a new major browser release every few months.
Business PCs make up a significant portion of the global PC landscape. Releasing major browser versions faster than businesses can assess and implement them could be a serious handicap for Firefox going forward.