Upgrade This! Software Egos Run Amok, Forcing the Rest of Us to Play Catchup

Software is supposed to work for business and consumer customers, right? Sure, except when it doesn't -- as the Mozilla Foundation showed when it moved to a new six-week release cycle, screwed over corporations by refusing any further security updates to version 4, and then dismissed businesses as important customers.

And that encapsulates a growing tension in the world of software. There have always been issues when software companies released new product versions. For companies, it usually meant spending more money to stay up-to-date, to say nothing of the time necessary to adopt to whatever minor or major changes might be included. But increasingly, as software becomes virtually free, developers are getting the upper hand over users. Programming egos are running wild, doing what they will and forcing customers to figure out how to keep up when they really have more important things to do.

Loving the status quo
Customers love stability in software. Corporations, for example, want to extensively test new software packages or versions of programs already in use, because there are important questions to answer, such as the following:

  • Will it work on all the PCs and laptops that need to run it?
  • Are there conflicts with existing software?
  • Will the package be able to access all the corporate resources it will need?
  • Does a change introduce security problems?
  • How much employee retraining will be necessary?
The bigger the company, the more difficult it is to answer the questions because the more variations to test there are in networks, clients, and servers. As browser expert and consultant Mike Kaply noted, custom applications, a common practice in corporations, are often written for current technology browsers.

Within two years, the company widely uses the application and most of the developers have shifted to other projects. Then a new browser comes out. The company has a big financial choice: spend lots on rewriting application for compatibility or find a way to keep using the old one? As one comment on Kaply's blog put it:

I have 500,000 corporate users on Firefox 3.6. We're just completing a test cycle of Firefox 4 on many thousands of internal business web applications. Many hundreds of application owners and their test teams have participated. We gave them several months to ready themselves. We worked with dozens of internal Add-On developers and product teams to prepare their add-ons for Firefox 4. ... The Firefox 4 EOL [end of life] is a kick in the stomach. I'm now in the terrible position of choosing to deploy a Firefox 4 release with potentially unpatched vulnerabilities, reset the test cycle for thousands of internal apps to validate Firefox 5 or stay on a patched Firefox 3.6.x. By the time I validate Firefox 5, what guarantee would I have that Firefox 5 won't go EOL when Firefox 6 is released?
The developer of the browser -- or any other software package -- can't give any guarantees.

And yet, consumers and small small business users and consumers also want stability. New software interfaces, features, and conflicts can add up to a giant pain, except without an IT department to sort it out. Except for a small portion of the population, people want things to be simple and predictable so they can get about with what they need to do that the software is supposed to help in the first place.

ADD: attention deficit development
A comment by Mozilla staff member Asa Dotzler only tossed gasoline on the corporate discussion:

Mike, you do realize that we get about 2 million Firefox downloads per day from regular user types, right? Your "big numbers" here are really just a drop in the bucket, fractions of fractions of a percent of our user base. Enterprise has never been (and I'll argue, shouldn't be) a focus of ours. Until we run out of people who don't have sysadmins and enterprise deployment teams looking out for them, I can't imagine why we'd focus at all on the kinds of environments you care so much about.
In short, there are so many people who use Firefox, why pay attention to a corporation that might have it rolled out to a fraction of the total number. Eventually, Mozilla issued a statement that added a little tact but little else:
"We recognize that this shift may not be compatible with a large organization's IT policy and understand that it is challenging to organizations that have effort-intensive certification polices. However, our development process is geared toward delivering products that support the Web as it is today, while innovating and building future Web capabilities," said Kev Needham, channel manager at Mozilla, in a statement. "Tying Firefox product development to an organizational process we do not control would make it difficult for us to continue to innovate for our users and the betterment of the Web."
Firefox wanted to do things the way others do on the Web, so if corporations had to go, that was too bad. But it might as well have said the same thing about the little guy. Every six weeks? How many users, corporate or consumer, have the time to examine a new version every other month to see what new features they might use? The answer is virtually none.

Losing track of the customer
The corporate and consumer use also reinforce each other. Many consumers who work at corporations and want software to work in both their professional and private worlds. They put pressure on the corporation, which then responds as it can. It's the same mechanism that's been at work in smartphones and tablets.

To pretend that corporate business is unimportant, particularly for general productivity software, is to betray little understanding of the high tech industry. By writing off businesses, Mozilla also writes off consumers, other than the few that are willing to devote time to making a corporation, whether for-profit or not, happy.

Mozilla is not the lone example of a software developer that ultimately doesn't work in rhythm with users. Google (GOOG) constantly pushes down new versions of its Chrome browser, except that it gives no warning and precious little explanation of what might have changed. Adobe (ADBE) frequently updates products like Flash and Air. Granted, many updates fix security flaws, but that's little comfort if an update raises havoc with software you commonly use, or if things stop working as they once did. (I'm already seeing some oddities in Firefox 5.)

The race for new features and functions is often a deceptive one. Most people need a core set of capabilities, and the assumption that they want more every few weeks shows a technical cadre that is out of touch with regular people.

Image: Flickr user RobotSkirts, CC 2.0.