This is not a major version increase

I’ve always hated what Google did to the term ‘beta’, and I’ve written about it before. Not content with utterly debasing the meaning of the word when applied to software, they’ve now set their sights elsewhere: the major version number. When ComputerBites posted on Twitter that he was about to install Google Chrome version 12, this was my response:

I got some interesting responses from that, all of them agreeing. Unfortunately, the disease has already spread, and Firefox has gone the same way. Three months after Firefox 4, and with only a single .0.1 update in between, Firefox 5 is ready to download.

Let’s compare:

  • Firefox 4 update page, “What’s New in Firefox”: 41 bullet points.
  • Firefox 5 update page, “What’s New in Firefox”: 11 bullet points, the last 2 of which are not even features and were clearly only added as filler. They are also almost all behind-the-scenes improvements rather than something the user will actually notice.

Firefox 4 to 5 is not anything like the update from 3 to 4. It has less than a quarter of the major changes. It’s Firefox 4.1; maybe 4.5 at a stretch. It’s not Firefox 5. This is purely a game of keeping up with Chrome, which at version 12 (and versions up to 14 in preview) is a farce. It’s insulting, even. The trend that started with Windows 95 of naming programs after years was bad enough, but at least then jokes about version number inflation were actual jokes.

But lets back up a minute: on the other hand, Firefox 5 does have some hallmarks of a major update that were curiously missing from Firefox 4. Specifically, bad backwards compatibility:

Oh sure, I’ll just do without those, shall I? I mean, they’re only two of my most-used add-ons (after Flashblock, naturally). Not a single one of my add-ons was incompatible with Firefox 4 when it was released. I don’t use many, so breaking two in one go, for almost no real benefit in terms of new functionality, is idiotic.

Also, here’s an idea for you Mozilla: while you’re so infatuated with updates, how about making this non-resizeable dialog a bit smaller so it doesn’t look so ridiculously stupid with so much wasted space? Or, you know, don’t break 20% of my add-ons for so little actual improvement.

Say what you want about Internet Explorer: it may be ahead of Firefox at version 9, but at least you can tell the difference between one version and the next without having to find the About box.

About The Angry Technician

The Angry Technician is an experienced IT professional in the UK education sector. Normally found in various states of annoyance on his blog. All views are those of his imaginary pet dog, Howard.

17 responses to “This is not a major version increase”

  1. Eric says :

    Too true, and well spoken, Mr. AT. I was similarly taken aback at the quickness this ‘Firefox 5’ had arrived after Ver 4. The broken add-ons and failures on the interface itself (specifically tab animations) have made me hate Firefox – my main browser – for the first time.

    Strange thing though: My Windows 7 machine downloaded and upgraded automatically, but my Windows XP laptop (which was off-network for a couple weeks when 5 was released) is still on Firefox 4.0.1 without being forced to upgrade. Is this because Mozilla noticed what a horrible job they did and / or how stupid it is to force a ‘Beta upgrade’, or is this upgrade OS specific?

    Uh oh. I made the mistake of checking on the version. It’s downloading an update now. Let’s hope for the best, although I’m not very enthusiastic.

  2. Daniel Beardsmore says :

    In terms of add-on compatibility, there’s no intelligence involved. Add-ons state in their manifest which versions of Firefox they support, and this is what Firefox checks. You can use Add-on Compatibility Reporter to bypass compatibility checking, and it allows you to trivially feed back to the developer which add-ons continue to work without an issue, and which no longer work. I’ve been using Nightly Tester Tools for years to bypass the checks, but ironally a Firefox upgrade broke that, so I moved to ACR in both Firefox and Thunderturd.

    I tried a couple of betas of 4 and they both went horribly wrong, so when 4 final came out, I disabled most add-ons and let Firefox rebuild my profile without hindrance, and then added back the add-ons a few at a time (I don’t have *that* many). I also left a few disabled that I no longer used, and swapped a few out for alternative products that provided geniune compatibility with 4.

    However, my principle for a long time has been to force compatibility as far less really changes to the API than the version number suggests, but many add-ons end up abandoned or are infrequently updated. I’ve been running a really old copy of keyconfig (from 2008) for ages that was finally updated, but I’ve disabled it anyway as I only use it in Thunderbird to block a few shortcuts that cause problems, mostly ^Q because Outlook uses that to mark as read (SRSLY) and when I come home I kept closing Thunderbird by mistake.

  3. Claudio says :

    its unfortunately pure marketing… for the most people on the Internet (called users) the version number just means “better”. so the higher the number the better the software must be… everybody knows that, right?
    The new Firefox boss seems to have understood that and launches FF 5 – new version number, so it must be better. For IT professionals this is senseless of course but for user it seems to be something very important like with other products (like BMW 116… 118…. 110… 130… etc)

  4. Paul says :

    As Daniel stated above, the problem with version increases in Firefox are to do with extension developers specifying a maxversion that they know their extensions work with. In the past, when a new version was released, it usually needed a lot of work to update the extension.

    However, as you’ve rightly pointed out, higher and higher versions are coming thick and fast with little difference – but since the version number (the maxversion in the xpi) is higher, the extension is automatically disabled.

    Time was, this was a good thing as new versions did break extensions, but now all that’s needed is to change the maxversion manually and the extension will work fine.

    There are extensions that will allow you to bypass the version checking but the underlying problem is the rapid changes to version numbers – iirc, the nightly version of firefox is 7?

    And now they’ve adopted the channel structure of Chrome too – instead of a release and a nightly, there’s now release, aurora, beta and nightly channels. I think. I don’t know, it’s all too much.

  5. Anon says :

    Apparently the workaround for extension authors is to set the maximum version to something like 42.0.0beta1, since that matches all versions in the near future, but Mozilla won’t actually let you do that.

    The real solution would be to declare an extension API and version that instead – using semantic versionining, you could actually make sure that extensions only actually break when there’s a change in the extension API that breaks compatibility. But no, that’s obviously too much work for them. Anything like this will probably get stuck in with the leaks (and tools for deteceting them) which get sidelined in favour of actually doing silly things like tweaking the timer limits by a few ms here and there. You’d swear this was a spare-time project, as opposed to a product that people are actually paid to work on.

  6. Paul says :

    Yesterday I hacked the maxversion of Gmail Manager extension to work with the current version of Nightly, by setting the maxversion to 7.*.

    I also installed the latest development build of Charamel.

    I come into work this morning to find an update for Nightly available.

    The version number?

    Wait for it….


  7. Jordan says :

    Version 6.0 is released today!

  8. kotekzot (@kotekzot) says :

    Firefox always had ridiculous, aggressive marketing, like constantly trying to pretend like it wasn’t Opera that pioneered tabs and, to a lesser extent, mouse gestures. Now, i don’t mind the fact that more people are using more standards-compliant browsers because of it, but it leaves a bad aftertaste in my mouth.

  9. Daniel Saner says :

    Today, I updated to Firefox 7.0 Beta, the 3rd major version number increase in 6 months. Among the 7 most emphasised new features are gems like:

    “Bookmark and password changes now sync almost instantly when using Firefox Sync”

    “Added support for text-overflow: ellipsis”

    “Added an opt-in system for users to send performance data back to Mozilla to improve future versions of Firefox.”

  10. Paul says :

    After realising that I should probably update my regular home install from whatever it is to 6.0, I come into work where I use the nightly version – and find we’re now up to version NINE.

    Well, that’s disabled EVERY ONE of my extensions. AGAIN.

  11. Daniel Beardsmore says :

    Paul: are you using Add-on Compatibility Reporter?

    You should find that many add-ons remain working if you ignore version checking, although not all will. Of course, if you run nightly, what do you expect? I’ve kept my home PC on 5 because I don’t want the hassle of rolling it all back if add-ons do genuinely break (like Lightning does with Thunderturd betas – even with Add-on Compatibility Reporter, it falls to pieces because Mozilla feel no urgency to keep it compatible).

    I did make a mistake when the stupid nag window popped up AGAIN, and accidentally selected to download the update, so I’ve been using TCPView to kill off the download connections to stop it updating, because I can’t find any way (via Google or about:config) to undo that mouse click and leave me on 5 for now.

    I wish their horrid nagger would have a grace period of a month or so for people who want to wait a while to upgrade for add-on compatibility reasons … And that it would check for add-on compatibility BEFORE initiating the update process. My fear is that if for any reason I restart Firefox or my PC, it will take that click as consent to update during launch now, with no way to stop this from happening.

    Given the publicity surrounding these releases I may simply disable program version checking outright, as I’ll can see where we are on versions from many places including this blog post! Computers should never nag users: they’re our slaves, not our masters or our wives!

    Lastly, since no-one’s still reading by this point, fletc3her made the following insightful remark over at Ars Technica, in relation to Mozilla now wanting to hide the version number from us:

    “There’s a high degree of absurdity in changing the major version number every couple months as a marketing move while simultaneously hiding the version number as a marketing move.”

    Comprehension of this on the part of Mozilla would also resolve the add-on version problem very nicely.

  12. Simon says :

    In a little over 6 months we’ve seen FF 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 in much the same way we’ve seen Chrome jump from 4 to 12. Nothing they have released deserves anything more than a single Major version increase in regards to functionality.
    The joke used to be on IE in that we web developers had to keep 3-4 versions of IE running on seperate machines for testing.
    Now we also have to have 6-8 versions of Firefox and Chrome as well (thank god for Portable Apps). This has gone beyond the joke.
    Get A Grip guys, if you need this many Major version releases it says that all your previous work was sub-standard, not only that but you’re making it near impossible for plugin developers to keep up and also confusing the hell out of the general public who are not as tech savy as us developers.

  13. BobL says :

    And reading this 12 months on from the last comment, I check to see that my Firefox is up to…… 17.0.1!

    That’s a major release every 6 weeks.

  14. Chris M says :

    I know that it’s not that big of an issue — at least apart from add-on compatibility — but the inflated version numbers just piss me off so much. Ten years from now, we’re going to be at Firefox 100. Ahhhhhhhhhhh!

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