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Future Firefox to slurp updates silently

Mozilla concedes enterprises might matter

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Updated Mozilla is changing the way Firefox installs on computers in an apparent concession to enterprise users it previously ruled were irrelevant.

Future versions of the open-source browser will download and install silently on your machine, saving you the bother of downloading and authorising the update.

It is hoped switching to Chromesque updates in the background will eradicate "update fatigue" creeping in following Mozilla's decision to pump out upgrades more frequently. The plan for 2011 was four updates.

That changed half way through 2011, with Mozilla now trying to squeeze out a further two updates before the end of the year bringing the total number of new Firefoxes in 2011 to six under a new, six-weekly release schedule. Firefox 8 is due on November 8 and Firefox 9 in December.

Chair of the Mozilla Foundation Mitchell Baker blogged of the silent update changes here: "Today people are telling us - loudly - that the notifications are irritating and that a silent update process is important. This work is underway."

Baker said Mozilla had been "very careful" in the past about making sure people knew its browser was changing and said Mozilla had "erred on the side of caution".

"One main reason people are notified of updates is due to incompatible add-ons," she said. The issue will be addressed by improving add-on compatibility.

Silent updates are expected in versions of Firefox, starting with number 10 in 2012.

In August, however, Baker revealed Mozilla's rapid release cycle was causing problems for enterprise customers. Enterprise customers must go through cycles of testing to ensure that the software and add-ons that they rely on work with the new version of the browser, and re-code where needed.

One niggle for customers using Firefox with Windows is that they must update their User Account Controls (UAC) preferences in the Microsoft desktop with each new version of Firefox.

Mozilla Firefox developer Brian Bondy blogged here: "If a user with administrative access gives permissions to Firefox one time via a UAC prompt, and that user has automatic updates on, then there is no reason we should continue to ask them to elevate the permissions each and every time we want to apply an update."

The Firefox team is testing a "Windows service approach" to get around the UAC issue; the service would install an optional component that would automate the update install without giving the UAC prompts, Bondy said.

The estimated target for the UAC change is the first quarter of 2012 and could pave the way for other features, such as faster browser start-up times using prefetching.

It's a subtle but important change of tune for Mozilla. Only in June, Mozilla's Asa Dotzler handed browser rivals an easy victory by claiming that the enterprise had never, and would never, be a focus for Firefox.

"A minute spent making a corporate user happy can better be spent making many regular users happy. I'd much rather Mozilla spend its limited resources looking out for the billions of users that don't have enterprise support systems already taking care of them," Dotzler said on June 23 in response to enterprise IT guy John Walicki's complaint about move to rapid release cycles.

Part of the move to rapid release cycles has seen Mozilla also kill support for older versions of Firefox. Walicki had criticised the policy, complaining Mozilla released Firefox 5 as he was ready to move 500,000 corporate users to Firefox 4 after spending months locked in testing to ensure thousands of web applications and add-ons ran on the browser.

Asked at the time whether Mozilla stood by Dotzler's comments and wished to comment further, Mozilla appeared to stand by their man. Dotzler is part of the original Firefox team and founder of Mozilla's Quality Assurance (QA) and Testing Program.

In a statement attributed to channel manager Kev Needham Mozilla told us on June 24:

"The Web and Web browsers continue to evolve rapidly. Mozilla's focus is on providing users with the best Web experience possible, and Firefox needs to evolve at the pace the Web's users and developers expect. By releasing small, focused updates more often, we are able to deliver improved security and stability even as we introduce new features, which is better for our users, and for the Web.

We recognize that this shift may not be compatible with a large organization's IT Policy and understand that it is challenging to organizations that have effort-intensive certification polices. However, our development process is geared toward delivering products that support the Web as it is today, while innovating and building future Web capabilities. Tying Firefox product development to an organizational process we do not control would make it difficult for us to continue to innovate for our users and the betterment of the Web."

However, on June 28, Mozilla chief executive Gary Kovacs was talking in less equivocal tones and trying to patch up the damage. He Tweeted: "Enterprises are built of people, and Mozilla is fundamentally about people. We support Firefox users wherever they are."

Meanwhile, Mozilla has now told us, its Enterprise Working Group is discussing a proposal to make available extended support of the browser. This is independent of silent updates.

It was ending extended support that upset Walicki and drew fire from Dotzler in response.

Since this all blew up, meanwhile, Google's Chrome - which also does silent updates - has continued to see its share of the worldwide browser market expand while Firefox has remained more or less stuck on a plateau, albeit dropping slightly. You can see the different browser trackers here and here. ®

This article has been updated to clarify Firefox release dates, included expanded comment from Mozilla's Kev Needham and the Tweet from Gary Kovacs, and reference the work of Mozilla's enterprise group on extended browser support.

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