Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Firefox 3: A Five Act Tragedy

Act I: The Hype

I first heard of the Firefox Download Day at the office, from a co-worker. It wasn't a dark and stormy night, however much we all wished it to be -- the A/C was on the blink yet again.

Naturally, my curiosity was piqued. I've been using Firefox for years now and I've grown used to it and a bunch of add-ons for it. Sure, it had a couple of annoying bugs, but I could live with those. Of course, a new and improved version was likely to get rid of them, which would have been incentive enough to check it out.

So I went to the "Spread Firefox!" site to find out what the fuss was all about. When I found that Mozilla not only planned to give us all a new version of my browser of choice, but also establish a Guiness World Record, I was hooked. I pledged right away and also scheduled a reminder in my Google Calendar, to make sure I wouldn't forget.

Act II: The Outage

It seems childish in retrospect, but I got really excited. Not only was I going to get my hands on the hottest piece of software on the Web, but I was also going to be a part of the effort to set a Guiness World Record. And I wasn't the only one around: a few other co-workers were as excited about this as I was.

When the big day finally came, I made sure I was busy working to keep my mind off the wait. The time passed quickly enough and when the clock was finally done ticking its way to 1 pm, I went back to the Firefox site. That's when I got my first surprise: the site was down.

It's not unusual for a site to be brought down to its knees by overwhelming interest, but I would have expected Mozilla to be prepared. After all, they were the ones who did their best to attract all that attention. Why make a fuss if you can't cope with the results?

After a couple of hours of doing a Wile E. Coyote impression, Mozilla finally got its stuff together and I was finally able to download my copy. Once it was on my disk, I wasted no more time and clicked through the install impatiently. At last, the moment of truth was at hand: I launched Firefox 3!

Act III: The Incompatibility

The first thing my new Firefox did was to check my add-ons. It then proceeded to notify me that less than half of them had updates compatible with version 3 of Firefox. That left more than half of my add-ons disabled.

Being a coder means that an essential part of your job is to imagine worst cases for your code, so
I generally try to be an optimist about everything else, just to balance things out. Therefore I surmised that the Mozilla site was still experiencing difficulties. Did I mention that my optimism is rarely founded?

I spent some time fumbling with the new user interface, only to find out that the developers didn't stop at adding the add-on search into Firefox itself. They also decided to remove the link that took the users directly to the add-on page. I ended up checking manually and the add-on page was working quite well, thank you.

That's where I felt Mozilla managed to set a record, although it wasn't the one they were hoping for: I went from enthusiastic to disappointed in less than 5 minutes since I installed their software. What were they thinking?

Pretend you're in charge of developing a rather successful software product. One of the key advantages it has over the competition is its extensibility. There's a huge variety of add-ons for it and they do lots of different things, ranging from silly to extremely useful. Even though your users might be dissatisfied with some aspects of your software, they would still be reluctant to change to a product that doesn't have the add-ons they use. So what do you do when you decide to develop a shiny new version of your product?

The fashionable answer seems to be "break the add-ons that worked nicely with the older versions", even though the history teaches us the opposite.

Okay, I understand that you can't always maintain compatibility. Sometimes, preserving compatibility is in direct conflict with a higher-priority design goal and you just have to go ahead and break stuff. What you do in those situations is to try to minimize the damage, which is what Mozilla tried to do. But what do you do about the stuff the remains broken?

Here's what you do: you make your installer check the compatibility and report to user before installing the new version and breaking your user's stuff.

Act IV: The Retreat

Once again life conspired to remind me why I'm a late adopter. After a minute or two of staring at the list of things I wouldn't be able to use with Firefox 3, I decided to go back to version 2. A routine check of my download folder revealed that I apparently got rid of the installer at some point in time. No big deal, I can download it from the Firefox site, right?

Wrong! There is no link to Firefox 2 anywhere on the whole page. No matter how hard you try, you won't be offered a chance to turn back. And I tried very hard, trust me. Among other things, I tried typing "firefox 2" into the search box. That particular attempt rewarded me with zero results. I didn't even get a link to a press release or release notes for Firefox 2. Zilch. Firefox 2 has been exterminated.

Despite all its pictures of birds and balloons and a smiling Sun, the message Mozilla is sending its users is loud and clear: "Assume the position!"

In the end, I found the download link on www.firefox2.com, a site that features a prominent notice that it isn't associated with Mozilla in any way. It worked for me, but it probably won't work for you. As I'm writing, I'm also looking at the new content of the site, where every occurence of "Firefox 2" has been replaced with "Firefox 3", except the site URL, of course.

Just in case you really need to go back, the solution is to grab the Firefox 3 download link and change it manually to request the version For example, the correct link to download the English (US) version of Firefox for Windows is:

Act V: The Repose

Having successfully overcome the unexpected difficulties, I decided it was time to wrap things up and go back to work. I installed Firefox 2 over its younger sibling and launched it. My optimism was proven unfounded yet again: Firefox neatly crashed when it tried to load my saved session.

I tried a few things before I stopped fighting the inevitable and uninstalled Firefox. Hoping fervently that the problem would be solved this time, I reinstalled it and launched it.

By this time I was more than a mite miffed or a tad testy: I was positively pissed off. In the spirit of their decision that I won't need version 2 ever again, Mozilla obviously didn't bother to test the downgrade process.

Fortunately, it turned out that no drastic measures were necessary. I was back to Firefox 2 and all my add-ons worked again.


While writing this post, I stumbled upon this article that explains how to make older add-ons work with new Firefox. In short, it describes a quick hack that makes Firefox skip the step where it checks for add-on compatibility. The article was about version 3.0rc1, so I don't know whether this will work in the final release. I didn't try it and I don't intend to. I prefer to wait until all the add-ons I use are updated. Having a new browser that's shiny and sleek is cool, but being able to use it my way is way cooler.