Firefox's Version Controversy isn't Just About Marketing. It's About the Strategic Direction of the Company.

For those who tuned in late, Mozilla announced after the release of Firefox 4 in March that they would be instituting a rapid release schedule like that of Google Chrome...

Matthew Gertner - Founder & CEO

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For those who tuned in late, Mozilla announced after the release of Firefox 4 in March that they would be instituting a rapid release schedule like that of Google Chrome, involving a new browser release every six weeks. Resistance to the plan has been widespread. To some degree this reaction was psychological: Firefox 4 was over a year in the making and was launched with great fanfare. This was hard to reconcile with the fact that, a few short weeks later, the version had already been supplanted by a new major release, which was itself on the road to obsolescence the day it hit the market. But if you agree that there is a compelling reason to make this version number change, then there is some truth to the assertion (in the comments of Gerv Markham's blog post) by Asa Dotzler, Firefox's Product Manager, that "negative publicity has already happened. It's in the past." In other words, people always hate change, so let's just take the PR hit and wait for people to forget about us and get outraged by something new and dastardly that Facebook did to their newsfeed.

Mike Kaply makes a more serious point: that the support policy for older versions that accompanies the new versioning scheme make Firefox less attractive to corporate customers. To this, Asa Dotzler (remember him?) replied in the comments: "Enterprise has never been (and I’ll argue, shouldn’t be) a focus of ours. Until we run out of people who don’t have sysadmins and enterprise deployment teams looking out for them, I can’t imagine why we’d focus at all on the kinds of environments you care so much about." Much eye-rolling ensued.

But by far the most important implication of the rapid release schedule is on Firefox's strategic direction. When Firefox hit the scene in 2004, it was touted as a way to counter Microsoft's neglect of Internet Explorer, which had become the transmission vehicle of choice for all manner of malware. With the Chrome's rapid ascent, there is now another viable "not Microsoft". Meanwhile, Microsoft has been shaken out of its complacency and is improving IE regularly, if not exactly rapidly. Firefox needs a new way to differentiate itself. The most obvious is to build on the strengths that it already has. And the greatest strength of all is the richness and breadth of its add-on community.

Firefox is better at enabling the development of sophisticated add-ons that make deep and innovative changes to the browser. So much better, in fact, that it is hard to imagine Chrome or Internet Explorer ever catching up. A big part of this is the ability to create binary components that tap into the very core of the browser, an ability that Daniel Glazman points out is gravely threatened by the new release policy. The impact is the same for our own WebRunner, which relies heavily on binary components. Instead, extension developers are being pushed towards the Add-on SDK, whose capabilities are much closer to those of the Chrome extension APIs.

This is another step down the path that Mozilla set out on when then CEO Mitchell Baker announced the new platform strategy in 2007. In essence, Mozilla wants to focus on creating the best browser possible. The distractions inherent in maintaining a platform for third-party developers (then XULRunner, now sophisticated extensions) undeniably detract from this goal. But what if being the best browser, in the sense of being truly differentiated from the competition, actually means that Firefox must be a great platform? In tackling the Chrome insurgent by seeking parity with its rapid release schedule, simple extension API, sparser user interface, process-isolated tabs and so forth, Firefox may be losing its strongest reason for existing.

Update: I changed the title of this post since I didn't want potentially provocative terminology to detract from the point I am trying to make.

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Matthew Gertner - Founder & CEO

Matt is a veteran British/American software engineer who has founded several technology companies.

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