Mozilla plans semi-silent updates to tug laggards onto the newest Firefox

Will likely kick off process in June to get more Firefox users on the latest version

Mozilla is preparing nearly-silent upgrades to get customers stuck on older versions of Firefox onto the newest edition, according to notes on the company's website and its bug-tracking database.

The plan is to start upgrading older Windows editions beginning with the next stable release, Firefox 30, which is slated to ship June 10.

"In the next weeks we will [be] implementing a project to get users on older versions of Firefox back onto the latest version," said Benjamin Smedberg on a Mozilla developers planning discussion thread last week. "We've confirmed ... that about 2% of Firefox profiles are getting 'stuck' on older versions in each release cycle, at least back to Firefox 22."

On his LinkedIn profile, Smedberg identifies himself as a Mozilla engineering manager.

Smedberg said that Mozilla didn't know why some of its users continue to run outdated versions of Firefox. But with Firefox's background update mechanism, those users had to have explicitly switched off or at least restricted updates.

Older versions of Firefox are riskier to run, as the browser is regularly patched to close security holes. And the laggards, inadvertently or not, fragment the browser's user base, making it difficult for Mozilla and add-on developers to craft new features or extensions because they cannot expect all to benefit.

Mozilla plans a two-pronged approach to the problem. For users still running 2010's Firefox 3.6 (or versions even earlier), the company will suppress the usual add-on compatibility check, which may spook users into declining.

For those running Firefox 11 or later, Mozilla will deploy an "add-on hotfix," a feature that lets the firm push silent changes to the browser rather than distribute a full update.

In turn, the add-on hotfix pushed to Firefox 11 and later will trigger an update process to migrate the browser to the newest available. That process is still under discussion, according to a Bugzilla entry. Bugzilla is the Firefox bug- and change-tracking database.

Currently, Mozilla is considering two ways to drag Firefox users to the newest browser. One would silently download the latter in the background, then upon the next Firefox launch, display only the generic Windows UAC (User Account Control) prompt. If the user clicks "Yes" -- the almost-automatic reflex of most Windows users -- the new version will open rather than the old.

Clicking "No" on the UAC prompt will instead open Firefox as usual, then download the new version in the background while the user browses. Eventually, a tab will open asking the user whether they want to run the new Firefox. Clicking "Not now" at that point simply postpones the inevitable, as Firefox will continue nagging the user once each week.

One-fourth of all Firefox users ran an outdated edition last month, a problem that's prompted a Mozilla plan to return those people to the latest version. (Data: Net Applications.)

If the process works out for Windows users, Mozilla will try the same with those running Firefox on OS X.

The second under-consideration process would be similar, but would ditch the silent-download-display-the-UAC-prompt part. Instead, the new Firefox would either download in the background, then ask whether the user wants to run the latest, or give them the choice, then begin the download.

According to a Bugzilla entry by Jennifer Morrow, a user experience designer at Mozilla, the first method -- silent download, show only the UAC prompt -- was, "The 'ideal' state in which the next version of Firefox is downloaded silently, in the background, without any interaction from the user."

Not surprisingly, considering the push-back Mozilla's gotten from some users unhappy with the user interface (UI) overhaul that debuted in Firefox 29 late last month, some who penned entries on the developers discussion thread questioned the old-to-new effort.

"I know there are a bunch of people staying on [Firefox] 28 because of Australis," wrote Mike Hommey on the thread, referring to Mozilla's name for the new UI. "That's a big problem."

In his initial message on the same thread, Smedberg said that whatever form the update took, it would honor users' wishes.

"We will continue to respect the user update preference: If the user has updates completely disabled in preferences, we will not prompt for updates at all," Smedberg said. "If manual-apply is chosen, we will nag but not force-install the update."

But he also acknowledged that most users have not touched the default Firefox update option setting -- which is expressed as "Automatically install updates (recommended: improved security)" -- in the browser's Preferences section. "All evidence shows that most users haven't changed the default update preferences," Smedberg said.

Mozilla may also bake the catch-up feature into Firefox at some point, so that in the future it will not have to use the add-on hotfix workaround. "Let's see how well the hotfix works and what user feedback is like," Smedberg said. "We will probably decide to build something like this directly into future versions of Firefox as part of our support API, but that is not guaranteed."

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 email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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4 Comments

a. grey

1

well, i for one am not updating to 29 specifcally because of the awful chrome clone UI. i'm using FF24 ESR (old UI, still receives security updates) until it, too, regresses to the australis interface. i already tried australis on aurora months ago, and couldn't stand it.

mozilla seems well intent on driving away the user base that stuck with firefox because it wasn't a dumbed-down browser like chrome.

look at what's happened to opera and microsoft... users like to stick with what's comfortable on a browser, not have the carpet pulled out from under their feet when they wake up to a completely different user experience. i have my browsers arranged the way i want them.

think of browsers like furniture... you arrange it to a way that suits you, then you leave it. what mozilla did with australis was the equivalent of somone coming into your house while you're away, bolting your couch to the ceiling and moving your television to the kitchen, then telling you to just be more open minded, that you'll adjust.

the only reason why i haven't ran to pale moon is that there is no OSX version.

Margarita

2

Silent download? Excuse me, I don't have an unlimited internet access, I do updates when (and if) it is convenient to me. Not to mention that some add-ons and sites don't work with the latest versions of the browsers, while still being very useful.

Mo Jo

3

Wow, from bad ideas like 29 to this, steath loading, forcing people to change, nagging them to change... I think firefox has outgrown it's real fans. I'm really almost done with them at this point.

Don Brooks

4

Firefox updated automatically on me despite my specifying that it should prompt for updates. I really don't like this because the new interface is very inconvenient.

In fairness, Chrome doesn't give users a choice about updates. But then they don't pretend to.

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