Thoughts on “Silent” Browser Upgrades
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.
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).
- 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.