This post encourages you to be a little more adventurous. Please try doing what it says, even if you don’t consider yourself a techie person.
The release of Firefox 4 in March 2011 brought many noticeable innovations in the browser itself, but there was another important innovation that was overlooked and misunderstood by many: A new procedure for testing and releasing new versions.
Before Firefox 4, the release schedule of the Firefox browser was inconsistent and versions were released “when they were ready”. Beta versions were released at rather random dates and quite frequently they were unstable. Nightly builds were appropriately called “Minefield” – they crashed so often that it was impossible to use them for daily web browsing activities.
The most significant breakthrough with regards to the testing of the Firefox browser came a year ago: Mozilla decided on a regular six-week release schedule and introduced the “release channels”: Nightly, Aurora, Beta and Release. The “Release” version is what most people download and use. “Beta” could be called a “Release candidate” – few, if any, changes are made to it before it becomes “Release”. Both “Aurora” and “Nightly” are updated daily and the differences between them are that “Nightly” has more experimental features that come right from the developers’ laptops and that “Aurora” is usually released with translations to all the languages that Firefox supports, while “Nightly” is mostly released in English.
Now here’s the most important part: I use Aurora and Nightly most of the time and my own experience is that both of them are actually very stable and can be used for daily browsing. It’s possible to install all the versions side-by-side on one machine and to have them use the same add-ons, preferences, history and bookmarks. This makes it possible for many testers to fully use them for whatever they need the browser for in their life without going back to the stable version. There certainly are surprises and bugs in functionality, but i have yet to encounter one that would make me give up. In comparison, in the old “Minefield” builds the browser would often crash before a tester would even notice these bugs, so it not so useful for testing.
This change is huge. Looking back at the year of this release schedule, this may be the biggest breakthrough in the world of web browsers since the release of Firefox 1.0 in 2004. In case you forgot, before Firefox was called “Firefox”, it was just “Mozilla”; it was innovative, but too experimental for the casual user: it had clunky user interface and it couldn’t open many websites, which were built with only Microsoft Internet Explorer in mind. Consequently, it was frequently laughed at. “Firefox” was an effort to take the great innovative thing that Mozilla was, clean it up and make it functional, shiny, inviting and easy to install and use. That effort was an earth-shaking success, that revived competition and innovation in Internet technologies.
Aurora does to software testing what Firefox did to web browsing. It makes beta testing easy and fun for many people – it turns testing from a bug hunting game that only nerds want to play into a fun and unobtrusive thing that anybody can do without even noticing. And it is a yet another thing that the Mozilla Foundation does to make the web better for everybody, with everybody’s participation.
A few words about Mozilla’s competitors: The Google Chrome team does something similar with what they call “Canary builds”. I use them to peek into the future of Chrome and i occasionally report bugs in them, but i find them much less stable than Firefox Nightly, so they aren’t as game-changing. Just as Minefield from Mozilla’s distant past, they crash too often to be useful as a daily web browser, so i keep going back to Firefox Aurora. Microsoft releases new versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer very rarely and installing future test versions is way too hard for most people, so it’s not even in the game. Opera is in the middle: It releases new versions of its browser quite frequently and offers beta builds for downloading, but it doesn’t have a public bug tracking system, so i cannot really participate in the development process.