Mozilla to drop Firefox version number, sparks backlash

Will drop identifying label from "About Firefox" dialog box

Mozilla's decision to strip the version number from Firefox's "About" dialog box has been greeted by a nearly unanimous thumbs down, according to a lengthy, and at times heated, debate on a company discussion list.

The pushback was the second in as many months against Mozilla, which found itself the center of a late-June controversy over its apparent lack of interest in enterprise customers.

Mozilla plans to do away with the version number -- shown here as '6.0' -- in Firefox's About box, a change that has riled some users.

Asa Dotzler, a director of Firefox, explained why Mozilla was dumping the version number.

"We're moving to a more Web-like convention where it's simply not important what version you're using as long as it's the latest version," said Dotzler on a thread in the mozilla.dev.usability discussion group on Sunday. "We have a goal to make version numbers irrelevant to our consumer audience."

The topic was obviously of interest to a users: As of mid-day Wednesday, the thread contained over 240 messages, an enormous number for a Mozilla discussion group.

For the most part, users aren't happy with the change, with many of them basing their complaints on the fact that for decades virtually all software has identified its version number in an About box.

Others contested Dotzler's point that everything was moving to a "more Web-like convention," noting that unlike a Web-based application such as Gmail or Facebook, Firefox is stored locally on each user's computer and as such should comply with traditional practices, including displaying the version in About.

At times, the debate was heated.

"Removing the version number from the About window is one of the most asinine proposals for Firefox in a year filled with asinine Firefox decisions," said someone identified only as "EnviroChem" on the thread Monday. "Are you intentionally trying to kill off Firefox? With the decisions being made lately, this certainly seems to be the case."

Dotzler's responses to questions also grated on some people, who accused him, and Mozilla, of not listening to user feedback and making what seemed to be an arbitrary decision.

"Because we should all listen doesn't mean we should put all of our plans or features up for a vote," Dotzler said in a message Tuesday.

The discussion also spilled onto Bugzilla, the Mozilla database where developers log changes and bug fixes to the browser.

At one point, Dotzler, who had logged the About box change into Bugzilla, washed his hands of the conversation there. "I relinquish this bug to the mob. Have fun," he wrote yesterday.

Earlier in the mozilla.dev.usability discussion group, Dotzler noted that users will still be able to find the version number of Firefox by calling up "Troubleshooting Information" from the browser's Help menu. And at times he applauded alternate ideas, including showing the version number in About when Firefox was unable to update itself.

The idea of downplaying Firefox's version number isn't new. Months ago, shortly after its shift to a rapid-release schedule that pushes out a new edition every six weeks, Mozilla said it would deemphasize the number for a more generic "Firefox" label.

It's done that in places on its website, including where users download the preview beta and Aurora builds of the browser: That page has omitted version numbers for some time.

And the overall strategy is consistent with the practice of some rivals, notably Google's Chrome. Although that browser identifies the current version number in its About dialog box, Google usually refers to the application as simply "Chrome," sans a number.

Like Mozilla, Google introduces a new version of its browser every few weeks.

It's unclear when Firefox will eliminate the version number from About, in part because Mozilla's faster release cadence doesn't rely on specific improvements in each edition, but adds them as they're completed.

On a page dedicated to under-development Firefox features, the change is tagged with a priority label of "P1," the highest possible. In another location, however, where Mozilla tracks new features by Firefox edition, the About change doesn't appear.

Mozilla released Firefox 6 Tuesday, and has Firefox 7, 8 and 9 slated to ship Sept. 27, Nov. 8 and Dec. 20, respectively.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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