Tag Archives: rapid releases

Rapid releases: one webdev’s perspective

People still seem to be very confused about why Mozilla has moved to the new rapid release system. I thought I’d try and explain it from my perspective. I should point out that I am not any kind of official spokesperson, and should not be quoted as such. The following is just my own personal opinion.

Imagine, now, you work on a team of web developers, and you only get to push new code to production once a year, or once every eighteen months. Your team has decided to wait until the chosen twenty new features are finished, and not ship until those are totally done and passed through a long staging and QA period. The other hundreds of bugs/tickets you closed out in that 12-18 months would have to wait too.

Seems totally foreign in these days of continuous deployment, doesn’t it?

When I first heard about rapid releases, back at our December All Hands, I had two thoughts. The first was that this was absolutely the right thing to do. When stuff is done we should give it to users. We shouldn’t make them wait, especially when other browsers don’t make them wait.

The second thought was that this was completely audacious and I didn’t know if we could pull it off. Amazingly, it happened, and now Mozilla releases use the train model and leave the station every six weeks.

So now users get features shortly after they are done (big win), but there’s been a lot of fallout. Some of the fallout has been around internal tools breaking – we just pushed out a total death sprint release of Socorro to alleviate some of this, for example. Most of the fallout, however, has been external. I see three main areas, and I’ll talk about each one in turn.

Version numbers

The first thing is pushback on version numbers. I see lots of things like:
“Why is Mozilla using marketing-driven version numbers now?”
“What are they trying to prove?”
“How will I know which versions my addons are compatible with?”
“How will I write code (JS/HTML/CSS) that works on a moving target?”

Version numbers are on the way to becoming much less visible in Firefox, like they are in webapps, or in Chrome, for that matter. (As I heard a Microsoft person say, “Nobody asks ‘Which version of Facebook are you running?’”) So to answer: it’s not marketing-driven. In fact, I think not having big versions full of those twenty new features has been much, much harder for the Engagement (marketing) team to know how to market. I see a lot of rage around version numbers in the newsgroups and on tech news sites (HN, Slashdot, etc), which tells me that we haven’t done a good job communicating this to users. I believe this is a communication issue rather than because it’s a bad idea: nowhere do you see these criticisms of Chrome, which uses the same method.

(This blog post is, in part, my way of trying to help with this.)

Add-on compatibility

The add-ons team has been working really hard to minimize add-on breakage. In realistic terms, most add-ons will continue to work with each new release, they just need a version bump. The team has a process for bumping the compatible versions of an add-on automatically, which solves this problem for add-ons that are hosted on addons.mozilla.org. Self-hosted add-ons will continue to need manual updating, and this has caused problems for people.

The goal is, as I understand it, for add-on authors to use the Add-on SDK wherever possible, which will have versions that are stable for a long time. (Read the Add-ons blog on the roadmap for more information on this.)

Enterprise versions

The other thing that’s caused a lot of stress for people at large companies is the idea that versions won’t persist for a long time. Large enterprises tend not to upgrade desktop software frequently. (This is the sad reason why so many people are still on IE6.)

There is an Enterprise Working Group working on these problems: we are taking it seriously.

finally:

Overall, getting Firefox features to users faster is a good thing. Some of the fallout issues were understood well in advance and had a mitigation plan: add-on incompatibility for example. Some others we haven’t done a good job with.

I truly believe if we had continued to release Firefox at the rate of a major version every 18 months or so, that we would have been on a road to nowhere. We had to get faster. It’s a somewhat risky strategy, but it’s better to take that risk than quietly fade away.

At the end of the day we have to remember the Mozilla mission: to promote openness and innovation on the web. It’s hard to promote innovation within the browser if you ship orders of magnitude more slowly than your competitors.

Notice that I mention the mission: people often don’t know or tend to forget that Mozilla isn’t in this for the money. We’re a non-profit. We’re in it for the good of the web, and we want to do whatever’s needed to make the web a better and more open place. We do these things because we’re passionate about the web.

I’ve never worked anywhere else where the mission and the passion were so prominent. We may sometimes do things you don’t agree with, or communicate them in a less-than-optimal way, but I really want people who read this to understand that our intentions are positive and our goal is the same as it’s always been.