You know how it goes: ‘Updates are waiting.’ ‘Important updates are waiting.’ ‘Damn it, download those updates or else!’ OK, I made up the last one, but the constant nagging to update Windows is a real drag and so is paying the freight on new releases.
All of those negatives are why I use open source software as much as I can, although I do use Office. Until recently, I had no major complaints about the Mozilla Foundation, the open source organisation that develops and distributes the Firefox browser and the Thunderbird email client, both of which I’ve recommended more than once. I not only like the software, I like the idea of software being developed by a community instead of for-profit corporation.
So it pains me to put the knock on Mozilla, but with its rapid upgrade policy – a new version of Firefox every six weeks or so, and quick upgrades to Thunderbird – the organisation is making a big mistake. If you follow the tech press, you’ve probably heard that the rapid upgrade policy has angered IT professionals who keep the computers and software humming at large businesses. It turns out, though, that some of the same issues that plague IT folks are every bit as annoying to us average consumers, or users, as they call us in the business.
That’s because software has to play nice with other software. It does no good to have an application program that won’t work with your operating system, whether it’s Windows, or Apple’s OS X, or open source Linux. And different applications need to work with each other as well.
It’s not reasonable to expect very old software to work with brand new operating systems and related applications. At some point, it’s simply too cumbersome for developers to write code that includes backward compatibility for everything. But generally those shifts take quite a while, and to be fair, Microsoft has been quite good about tending to backwards compatibility.
But Mozilla’s new release schedule is pushing changes much too fast for other software developers to keep up. Issues include security, compatibility with add-ons and compatibility with application software.
Mozilla and security
We all know why security is an enormous issue for business and consumers alike. But you may not know that many businesses, particularly those regulated by laws like HIPAA and Sarbanes-Oxley, are mandated to follow security guidelines and that generally means a lengthy period of testing new software for security flaws.
That’s pretty tough when Mozilla not only cranks out a new version every couple of months, but also stops supporting older versions, which means no new security patches. That’s a major complaint that IT pros have been making to Mozilla. Even if you’re strictly a home user, you should be concerned as well. If you don’t upgrade your version of Firefox and a new threat that attacks the browser arises, you may be at risk. In effect, you’re being forced to upgrade, a very user-unfriendly policy.
What’s more, when upgrades are ready, Firefox and Thunderbird start acting a lot like Windows, nagging, nagging and nagging some more until you give up and push the upgrade bottom.
If you use Firefox, you know that a great strength of the application is the availability of a wide variety of small programs called add-ons that help customise it. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of these for Firefox and Thunderbird.
Nearly all of those cool add-ons come from independent developers. And there’s the rub. Every time a new version of Firefox comes out and users are pushed to upgrade, some of those add-ons break, that is they stop working.
It’s very aggravating. Every time Firefox revs, at least one or two of my favourite add-ons breaks. After a while the developers catch up, and slightly newer versions of the add-ons pop up and work – until the next upgrade.
Equally annoying are compatibility issues that affect multiple applications. As I mentioned, I use Microsoft Word and other Office apps, and over the years, Thunderbird and Word were pals. But that was no longer the case once I upgraded to Thunderbird 6. Now email related functions in Word don’t work. After some research, I believe the problem has to do with how Thunderbird deals with what’s called MAPI, which is short for messaging application programming interface. Apparently the newest version of Thunderbird deals with MAPI in a slightly different way than previous versions. And there’s really nothing I can do about it.
Sure. There are zillions of applications out there, and you can’t expect Mozilla to check compatibility with all of them. But Word is one of the most commonly used applications in the world. So you’d think the Mozilla folks would be a little careful about that. And they probably would have in the past, but now that they’re cranking out upgrades at a breakneck speed, they simply don’t have the time.
What Mozilla has to say
Mozilla has gotten a lot of (deserved) flack for the rapid changes. Last week, Mitchell Baker, the chair of the Mozilla foundation, acknowledged in a blog post, that the issues many businesses have raised are significant. She explained the reason for the rapid upgrades this way:
“Before Mozilla instituted the rapid release process, we would sometimes have new capabilities ready for nearly a year before we could deliver them to people. Web developers would have to wait that year to be able to make their applications better.
“If we want the browser to be the interface for the internet, we need to make it more like the internet. That means delivering capabilities when they are ready. That means a rapid release process. If we don’t do something like this the browser becomes a limiting factor in what the internet can do.”
I don’t altogether buy that, and wonder if Mozilla hasn’t felt pushed by their rivals at Google who are also quite fast on the upgrade. I’m also bothered by Mozilla’s position that it is large businesses that have the problem, not consumers. (My request for an interview with Mozilla was not answered.)
They are wrong. Consumers need security and compatibility every bit as much as businesses. If Mozilla wants to continue as a favored alternative to Microsoft, it had better stop acting like a Microsoft wannabe.