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Thoughts on “Silent” Browser Upgrades

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With the release of version 12, Mozilla Firefox joins the Google Chrome ranks of silent browser updates.  This topic has gotten a lot of attention over the past few days due to Firefox's release and the fact that Mozilla the second vendor to implement said feature.  Microsoft has said they plan to implement silent updates as well.  I contend that automatic browser upgrading is a good practice.  Let me share my reasons for such, and propose a few ideas for improvement.

Full disclosure:  I'm a Mozilla employee.  That has no bearing on my opinion, however.

See Past Your Expertise

One thing many developers overlook is their own technical expertise.  It's sobering to me that none of my personal friends know what I do, much less name more than two browsers.  Realize that 99% of web users don't care which browser they're using -- they just expect websites to work.  My mother, my grandmother, my uncle don't know what "browser" means or which one they use;  they simply know that clicking the blue "e" opens the internet.  If they don't know what browser they use, what are the chances they know how to upgrade their browser, or choose a better vendor?  They don't.  Should the expect a great experience from our web applications?  Of course.  Silent browser upgrading solves the issue of helping those that can't help themselves.

The Internet Explorer Example

The most obvious example of why automatic browser updating is important is Internet Explorer.  Think of how many years we've bitched about Internet Explorer 6.  Of course the true issue with IE6 is that Microsoft neglected the browser market, but when Microsoft resumed their commitment to IE, pushing IE6 users to a newer version proved all but impossible.  IE6 is still a consideration today.  Silent browser upgrades would have allowed IE to push browser upgrades and bypass the years of frustration we've gone through.

UA Sniffs Gone; Feature Detection Here

When the web and browsers were simpler, there were less features to detect and thus developers didn't give thought to feature detection, so much as simple user agent sniffing.  We're smarter now and there are better tools to allow us to detect what we need.  Of course there will always be developers who don't follow best practice, but with the proper techniques in place and known, sniffing (and thus browser version) is becoming less of an issue.

Updates are Still Optional

Firefox allows the web-conscious user to stop automatic updates;  silent updating is simply the default.  One thing we need to realize is that since we're the experts, we need to find a way to get browsers of a specific version;  it shouldn't be the user's responsibility to ensure upgrades;  see the reasons above to know why.  Users who don't know or care about updates wouldn't touch this setting and thus only knowledgeable persons would be effected.

Improvement

There's always room for improvement for us.  And by "us", I mean "developers", as we're the true connoisseurs of browsers.  We must have each browser version accessible to us by the vendor, and we should be provided the ability to prevent browser version upgrades.  Mozilla provides each version on their FTP site, and this script allows for Firefox installation of all versions without upgrade abilities;  an incredible script.  Browsers vendors also need a bulletproof strategy for ensuring popular extensions work with each browser upgrade, allowing users with little knowledge (just enough to get an extension installed).

In Short...

  • Get over yourself: not everyone cares about what browser they use
  • Some don't know what a browser is; they just want stuff to work
  • Be a better developer

This is where you can tell me I'm wrong.  Bring it.

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Discussion

  1. Only the IE example should be enough

  2. I don’t think this solves much honestly because the biggest set of non upgraders is corporate environments with lazy it departments. My friend works as an engineer for a major engine manufacturer where he is STILL stuck using IE6, and is unable to install ANYTHING else because his machine is so locked down. I honestly don’t think home users are the issue at all anymore. Home users don’t turn auto update off, but corporate environments will. They’re deathly afraid of losing power over their users, as well as having to say roll back a ton of machines if something did break, which I find highly doubtful. But in my experience it departments hate actually doing their job.

    • You’ll find it isn’t “lazy” IT departments which are to blame for the lack of upgrading, but all the internal legacy systems which don’t quite work on newer browsers. Unfortunately it’s down to the “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” attitude (usually from higher powers), as it’s difficulty to schedule internal development resources, when the system isn’t actually broken…

    • IT departments seem to be dying to upgrade browsers, but legacy intranet junk made by bad developers is holding them back. Nobody wants to okay expenditure of money to fix the problem, so IE6 stays,

    • Have to agree with OLI and REDWALL_HP on this one.

      “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” is the general attitude, especially when “fixing it” could cost (tens of) thousands of dollars in programming, testing, deployment and possibly re-training.

      If it were literally as simple as a quick download, I’m sure the companies in question would have no problem making the upgrade(s).

      Especially with the much, much larger organizations/corporations where the costs of upgrading can be enormous, it’s not easy to just get approval on a (possible) $50-100K upgrade (once you factor in all the man-hours, re-training, etc).

      And yeah, no IT guy/gal enjoys having to deal with IE6 and such on a daily basis. But they’re not calling the shots.

  3. Alex

    I agree with all your points/facts.

    Chrome ads a Startup App named ‘Google Update’.
    Will Mozilla do the same? I have some privacy concerns, hopefully Mozilla is less evil than Google…

    • dvdrtrgn

      You throw the word evil in there like it hasn’t any weight. Maybe you’re too young to know what true tech evil is. No one has come close to what Microsoft had wrought upon us. But you should still see the results of their handiwork in the fractured web and the sheer amount of garbage code on the intranet of any large company. Their legacy is painfully crappy platforms and products forced down our throats by bought-and-paid-for IT drones following the mandate of corporate old-boys. I just hope we would preserve that as in proportion to the “evil” you think Google might do.

  4. Frank Mawn

    What’s a connoisseurs ?

  5. In a perfect world, us developers wouldn’t need to install every version of X, Y and Z browser, as everyone would be on the latest version…oh how we all wish for that day!

  6. …as long as there is a way for a user to be notified of the updates (preferably with manual permission), I’m more than ok with the idea. The biggest problem for me about Chrome’s updates isn’t that they are updating their browser; it’s that the way for the user to be informed that that is happening is so buried as to remind me a little too much of an old bait and switch.

    I don’t see anything wrong with nagging a user. I do see something very wrong with the idea that silent updates, and how they are implemented, tend to be based on a very long EULA with terms buried. The software vendor in question may have strong recommendations about making sure you’re up to date, but in the end the user *owns* the hardware, not the vendor. To me, it’s close to the same as having someone come fix something in your house, and then show up out of nowhere to do more work “for your own good”.

    I also have a lot of personal experience with what Jesse mentioned, which makes things even more dubious for me.

    The bottom line, as I see it, is that the amount of frustration on the part of browser vendors (or any other software vendor, for that matter) doesn’t justify the idea of silently updating software. Just because MS seriously screwed everyone over doesn’t mean other software vendors get to play judge and auditor. If Mozilla (or any other vendor *cough* Google *cough* was paying for the hardware and we, as consumers, just rented it, that’d be a different story. But it’s not.

    Grandma notwithstanding.

  7. I’m all for the silent updates, its bad enough that developers have to make sure something will work in 5 browsers, but we also have to make sure that it works for most of the releases of those browsers.

  8. Thanks for great post !

    I also think there is another reason why. Because they love the way web app works, it’s updated automatically and people* are tired of doing update for their software. So, to make it more consistence, just update silently. Yes, people are getting lazy :D j/k

  9. A useful silent update would be for MS to install Chrome Frame into all IEs from 6 to 9 running on XP sp2 or higher. This would allow the use of much HTML5 such as the tag even in IE6.

  10. Ricardo

    Im ok with that, as in, I will trust and give all my info to moz until the day. On a fair use policy, use my info until the day I would say enough its enough. Just because you provide a free *open* piece of software that has done more good to me than wrong and happy to whatever you do behind the cortain.
    Thats my user side. My developer side would tell you guys to implement some sort of alert, non-annoying one like to say: provide the current version and count down timer on the titlebar for example, that would tell people that they are behind the lastest release x days “currently you are using version 20.34 and you are 445days outdated”

  11. Canbeiro

    I believe that one reason other kinds of software don’t upgrade authomatically is that it is (was) harder to say their users would use them while connected at the internet. This reason does not apply to browsers and also makes for your case.

  12. A long, long time whenever there was a browser update it was nearly always called a security update due to …

    These days it’s hard to find these things. I’d like to know why I’m being upgraded, before I’m upgraded!

    That way I can check if plugins/extensions work, and or if there’s something I’m not comfortable with eg. ads.

  13. Ian Turner

    Silent updates to rid the world of ie6? Yes please!

    But wait! What about Granny? She uses 2 websites, one day her browser updates itself and “hey presto” ie22 breaks 1/2 of her online experience. Hardly fair on Granny, eh? Not the fault of the browser vendors though, more the fault of the website developers for not keeping ahead of the game. But is it right that Granny pays the price? Surely we are trying to make the web more inclusive?

    For me it is not right that we as developers should believe that because we know better, we know better and therefore everyone else should listen. We may know how everything would work better together but it is just not that simplistic. Company intranets and legacy systems….yes, companies should spend the money to update them to improve stability and user experience but what about smaller companies that can’t afford to update a system they had built some time ago? We are living through tough economic times for small companies.

    Surely there has to be a better, more inclusive way of working. How about proper backwards compatibility? Ie6 compatibility within later versions? Developers could declare the versions of the most popular browsers they aimed at in the , like on android when you declare the version you designed it for. Then its down to the browser vendors to render it properly.

    Just saying….

  14. Jon

    I use a CMS that has not been updated to be compatible with newer versions of FF. It has never run well in IE, & can be a little glitchy in Chrome.
    So for the hundreds of users here, we, out of necessity, have to stay with FF 3.x — yes, you read that right.
    It’s put into the university build, so if someone does upgrade, it can be re-installed, but if everyone’s machine tried to update every time they logged in, it would be a major hassle.

  15. Cross browser compatibility:

    This should be mandatory for all developers unless your application is for internal use only.

    Silent upgrades are great, however sometimes they can break your site. Explaining to clients why its an issue with their browser and not the site can be hard. Again its the developers responsibility that it should work with the latest releases too.

    On Lock down Corporate Systems:

    From an admins Point of View, there are very good reasons for locking down systems, when you have to deal with 500+ users. From an operations perspective, a locked system provides a consistent environment to allow for smooth and hassle free service.

  16. The FF is now make a compare standard for Google chrome.So now a days Microsoft is also going for some silent updates. These updates are very easy in practice.

  17. I agree with what your saying and that these upgrades will help the developers. I would prefer these updates to be opt-in rather than opt-out. I would still like to be given a choice or be presented with a choice.

  18. With more and more ‘web apps’ being made or thin clients around don’t you think that this is a sign of a culture shift in software updates. What would you think if your mobile phone or music streaming app started downloading updates whenever it could.
    I think there’s a double edged argument here. For one it makes our ‘developer’ lives easier as we don’t have check for so many compatibility issues. One the other hand there is a privacy/trust concern that the general user has. I’ve written about this argument in a post http://blog.peterfisher.me.uk/2012/07/11/browser-auto-updates-is-it-a-good-or-bad-thing/

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