Mozilla Will Release Extended Support Firefox Versions

January 11, 2012

This past summer, the Mozilla organization changed its scheduling practice for new versions of the Firefox browser.   Previously, the interval between major releases had been something like six months to a year.  The change introduced a “rapid release” model, similar to that used by Google for its Chrome browser, with releases occurring at roughly six-week intervals.   That there was a significant change can be seen from the following release dates.

Firefox Release Month Released
3.5 June 2009
3.6 January 2010
4.0 March 2011
5.0 June 2011
6.0 August 2011
7.0 September 2011
8.0 November 2011
9.0 December 2011

Some larger organizations have complained that the new release cycle is too rapid — it does not give them enough time to test new releases with applications and extensions that they may have developed for their own specific purposes.  This is, for bad historical reasons, a bigger problem than it should be.  In the early days of the Web, it was necessary to test even relatively simple Web pages with different browsers.  Netscape supported some constructs that Internet Explorer didn’t, and vice versa.  Web standards, such as they were, were mostly notional.  We have seen some good progress on standardizing things, notably with the introduction of HTML 5, but old habits die hard, never mind old applications.

Although Mozilla originally reacted rather coolly to these complaints, Ars Technica now reports that an accommodation has been reached.  Mozilla  will now designate some Extended Support Releases [ESRs, not to be confused with Eric S. Raymond], which will receive security updates for a longer period without getting major changes in functionality.

Mozilla has announced plans to offer an annual Extended Support Release (ESR) of Firefox for enterprises and other adopters that don’t want to keep up with the browser’s new rapid release cycle. Each ESR will receive regular security patches, but will not be updated with new functionality until the next ESR becomes available.

The announcement of the change, in a post on the Mozilla blog, has some additional details of what is planned.

As Ars Technica points out, the new plan is similar to that approach that the Ubuntu Linux distribution has used since its beginning in 2004.  Ubuntu produces a new release of its distributions every six months.  A Long Term Support [LTS] release is designated every two years; it receives security support for three years on the desktop, and five years on the server.   (A Linux distro release includes not only the OS itself and the user interface, such as KDE or Gnome, but also a large collection of applications and tools, so it is a considerably bigger job than a single application release.)

This seems like a sensible move on Mozilla’s part.  The rapid release process has, on balance, been a good thing; in particular, by delivering support for new Web standards more quickly, it encourages standards-based development that should ameliorate the testing problem over time.  Introducing the ESR versions acknowledges the reality that everyone cannot jettison all their historical baggage at once.

Wired also has an article on the ESR announcement.

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