Follow-up to the Firefox updates post
Further thoughts in response to comments on my previous post about rapid Firefox releases.
1. "But Chrome does automatic updates too! If people hate automatic updates they shouldn't be switching to Chrome". A lot of people have said something to this effect.
Look, it might not make perfect logical sense, but I'm reporting what actual users have been telling me about their reasons for switching. They may not be aware that Chrome has automatic updates (since they're mostly invisible). Or they may think automatic updates are fine as long as they're implemented unobtrusively.
2. "People like Chrome's automatic updates fine; therefore it's not the fact of automatic changes but the obtrusiveness of the implementation that matters".
Another frequent argument. It's certainly the prevailing opinion in the software industry right now -- that everything should auto-update, and the only difference that matters is between auto-updating well and auto-updating poorly.
I'm just not so sure this is really a good idea. I realize that my position might be unusual, even controversial. But I think users ought to have the ability to say "no thanks" to an update that makes UI or compatibility-related changes. These changes can have downsides. Since only the user is in a good position to judge how significant those downsides will be for them, the user should be in control of accepting or rejecting those changes.
Chrome hasn't yet made any large changes of this type so far. They're still too new for people to have built up a lot of dependence on obscure add-ons or UI edge-cases, and they've been mostly leaving the UI alone and making changes under the hood. So they haven't yet faced backlash for an unpopular change.
But take a look at the outcry over recent UI changes to another Google product -- GMail. Since GMail is a webapp, there's nothing users can do to about the changes. There's no such thing as running an "older version" of a webapp -- automatic updating is unavoidable. There seemed to be a lot of people who agreed with my assessment that the changes were a net negative.
I suspect that sooner or later, Chrome will make a UI change that users don't like, they'll push it out automatically, people will have no way to go back to the old version, and then there will be similar backlash.
3. Separating types of updates. I'm going to quote Gervase's comment in full, because I think he gets to the crux of the matter:
Updates are a good thing for all users when they are security updates. One of the things about the rapid release process, and one of the reasons for picking "six weeks", was the idea that security releases and new releases would be the same thing, and we'd have to maintain fewer branches. When a security update comes with significant UI changes, though, that's not good. So perhaps the idea of combining the two was our mistake?
Yes! It's best for everybody if as many people as possible are on the most secure possible version of their chosen browser, and the best way to make that happen is with automatic security updates. I would add performance updates and certain types of bug-fixes to this category, too -- if a change does nothing but speed things up, with no UI changes, then I think it's OK to push that out automatically and unobtrusively. Who doesn't want speed enhancements?
Maybe software projects ought to design their architecture so they can do security/performance updates in separate development branches from UI-relevant updates? Then the security/performance updates can be automatic and invisible, while the UI/compatibility changes can be optional. (Yes, separating these two kinds of updates can be hard. Yes, supporting multiple versions with different UI is hard. Nobody said making good software was easy!)
4. Mozilla actually did this, sort of. Firefox Extended Support Release exists. It's a version that gets security fixes but no UI changes for a year at a time. It's designed for large deployments at schools, businesses, etc. It would be an ideal solution for users who don't want change, but for some reason Mozilla has chosen to hide it away and actively discourage individual non-enterprise end-users from trying it out.
5. I said "No UI is better than the one you already know". I was exaggerating for hyperbole -- I don't really believe that no UI is ever better than the one you know.
So let me revise my statement: Rarely is a UI change such a big improvement that the efficiency gain from adopting it outweighs the efficiency loss from relearning. Designers tend to overestimate the benefit of a change and underestimate the importance of habituation. That's what I was trying to say.
Look down at your hands. Are you using a DVORAK keyboard? Why not? It's theoretically more efficient, right?
6. The Firefox update mechanism is a lot better now, as is the add-on compatibility situation. If you've left Firefox, I hope you'll consider giving it another try.