Bridging the Gap


There has been some discussion about the direction of Mozilla’s Update Services and where they will be going as Aviary 1.1 approaches.

There are three tiers:

  • Addons (extensions and themes)
  • PFS – Plug-ins and the “finder service” that helps you find correct plug-ins based on mime-types
  • AUS – Critical updates that your app checks for periodically (that red thing on the upper right)

Tonight, I thought about what makes Mozilla and open source unique. What sells it to the community, and makes people like you and me — once aware of the option — gravitate towards open source alternatives? What made Firefox successful?

Building off Kveton’s assessment, community interaction and feedback has led to direct results that are visible in record times. From improvements in nightly builds, minor revisions, update services, etc. — users have gained a sense of ownership and sense of community when working with certain projects or applications. There is less of a gap between developers and the public demand that drives them.

Software engineering in the private sector, driven by corporations, can tend to rely more on focus groups, customer surveys and error reporting tools. Microsoft, based on these sources can work to improve products to ensure market share and customer satisfaction.

So, while I was talking to Thompson in the car about it, I came up with the point that although both sources are legitimate, only one has a sense of ownership and community that is tied directly to and supported by the founding organization. Microsoft, for example, would not alter the IE trunk to correct standards interpretations for years despite mounds of feedback. There was no turnaround there… and it wasn’t the first time.

But I don’t like geting into the MoFo vs. Microsoft game. It’s not really a fair comparison because Microsoft has much larger problems caused by their enourmous user base. Regardless, in projects like Firefox or Thunderbird there is such a close relationship between developers and end-users that the turnaround time for bug fixes and application improvements is remarkable and unprecedented. I have not seen such a connection in the Microsoft community.

Surely, though, it won’t be smooth sailing forever. As time progresses, and the population of MoFo’s end-users increases, they will face some of Microsoft’s problems:

  • Scalable update architechture
  • Progressively difficult regression testing

The community will likely survive its growth, but there are some things we should start doing now to prepare for the future. One of the best ways to help prevent these growing pains is to invest more time and effort towards ensuring that the gap between end-users and developers never widens.

And Mozilla is not without direction. This is already being done by tools like reporter, which was recently added to nightly builds. Sites like Mozillazine, SpreadFirefox and Bugzilla also contribute to opening paths of communication between the developer and their users.

Keep in mind that it doesn’t stop there. We have a responsibility to do more for users than make their applications user friendly. We should give them the option to participate, to feel the sense of ownership and community that makes these apps special. What better than augmenting the update infrastructure with more user-facing forums, an improved rating system, and upgrading critical update options and reliability?

Aviary 1.1 is already moving towards an improved critical update mechanism that is focused on smaller patches, more options, and a “set it and forget it” mentality somewhat similar to the hands-free Windows Update services you’ve seen in Windows XP. Some people might think that’s it — no, it’s just the beginning.

Much like Windows Update, critical updates dealing with security or serious flaws in application architecture will mostly just be blindly installed. “Yeah, yeah, just do it so I’m up to date.” It’ll be like Symantec’s virus definitions. You hardly know they are updating themselves. And that’s great — that is what I’ve been hoping for in Mozilla applications.

Now users don’t have to worry about critical updates or security patches. They don’t have to constantly install new binaries, and as applications mature, critical updates will hopefully taper off. Now they can worry about having fun, playing with new tools and innovations that extend an already great application base.

So give them an easy way to browse, install, update, troubleshoot and discuss extensions or themes. Done properly, a reworked and revamped addons site could provide these venues. It would ensure and improve the sense of ownership and community unique to all Mozilla applications.

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