Firefox 5 is Here. Wait, What?

Last Updated Jun 28, 2011 1:42 PM EDT

It seems like only months ago that Firefox 4 made its long-awaited debut. Wait, it was only months ago -- three months, to be exact. And yet Mozilla just released Firefox 5, which, by numerology alone, should represent a major update.

It's not. Although Firefox 5 fixes hundreds upon hundreds of bugs, the only new feature that's even remotely notable is support for CSS animations. Beyond that, Mozilla is stuck touting who-cares improvements like "the Do-Not-Track header preference has been moved to increase discoverability" and "improved spell checking for some locales."

What's going on here? At best, this is Firefox 4.1. At worst, it's a confusing update for Firefox users who are still working around plug-ins that haven't been updated for version 4. (And make no mistake: some current and just-updated plug-ins will be rendered incompatible with Firefox 5.)

It's all part of Mozilla's new "rapid-development cycle," which promises to push out new features and updates every three months. Yep, you read right: we should see Firefox 6 in September, Firefox 7 in December, and so on.

Whatever Mozilla's motivation -- trying to catch up with the likes of Internet Explorer 9 and Opera 11, making Firefox seem like the hip, always-evolving browser -- this is a colossally stupid move. It's bad not only for users, but also for developers, who are forced to push out more compatibility updates more often -- and may not have the time or resources to do so, which in turn will leave users hanging. And angry.

I've been a devoted Firefox user for as long as I can remember, but I must admit I'm starting to fall out of love with the browser. It runs sluggishly at times, even on my newly deployed Linux system, where it inexplicably hangs for a few seconds here and there. Meanwhile, plug-in compatibility has definitely been a problem since moving to version 4.

One could argue that this is much ado about a number, that it makes little difference if Mozilla calls this "new" browser 4.1 or 5. Functionally speaking, that's true. But with competitors like Chrome and Opera coming on hot and heavy, I think a strategy change might be in order.

What are your thoughts on all this? Does the sudden release of Firefox 5 make you rethink your choice of browser? Or does this stuff all seem meaningless as long as you can get your work done? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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    Rick Broida, a technology writer for more than 20 years, is the author of more than a dozen books. In addition to writing CNET's The Cheapskate blog, he contributes to CNET's iPhone Atlas.