Is Web Browser Development Moving too Fast?

Earlier this year, Mozilla announced to the market that it will adopt a significantly shorter development cycle for Firefox browser releases in an effort to accelerate browser development and avoid losing further market share to Google’s Chrome. So, will other major browser providers also have to enhance and update versions much more quickly or risk losing users?

While this is good news for end-users, can web designers, developers and website owners keep pace? I’ve read various articles which suggest that many will not be able to keep up, particularly as browsers evolve and developers race to support HTML5 features and improve performance.

Mozilla’s rapid release cycle creates challenges for companies that need to ensure their websites, apps, and add-ons work as intended with every update. Many companies simply can’t stay on top of major browser updates every 6 weeks (with each one of these being a major update according to Mozilla & Google).

This infographic of the Evolution of the Web illustrates how much browser release cycles have decreased across all the major browsers for the past several years (look at the far right of the graphic).

With simple security and bug fix releases, there was a reasonable expectation that web applications wouldn’t break as a result of changes. With these accelerated major release cycles, there is no such expectation, so a full test cycle needs to be run with every release. By the time this cycle is completed and the browser is piloted and deployed, another version of Firefox or Chrome has already been released.

When you also consider the accelerated schedule of older versions into the mix, you start to understand why enterprises will have a difficult time keeping up.

To support the current browser upgrade process will require a full time team whose only job would be to ensure cross-browser compatibility of all relevant web applications. This would require a full browser testing cycle and QA test bed upgrade every six weeks instead of every six months or so. With browser versions being released rapidly, every single point release may have different features, behaviors or characteristics. The chart below illustrates the impact that both browser type and version can have on performance.

In an environment of limited resources, most developers and QA teams can’t test and optimize across all browsers and must focus on the browsers with the highest ROI potential for the business, not just the top browser versions based on market level data.

Mozilla recently announced plans to remove the version information altogether from the About Firefox page to ‘avoid confusion and make sure users always have the most current version of Firefox.’ Many interpreted this as a way to make Firefox users less aware of the rapid release cycle. However, with pressure from ardent Firefox users, Mozilla dropped the plan to remove the version number from the about window.

Managing browser diversity has become exponentially more challenging with faster browser development and release cycles. Testing for compatibility across every browser type and version is time-consuming and prohibitively expensive, so organizations need to focus on the issues that really matter:

  • Understand which browsers your visitors use: If your major source of business comes from Asia, for example, it’s far more important to measure your site’s performance on IE7 – the most popular browser in that region – than the more recent, yet less widely used IE9.
  • Test from the end-user’s perspective: To get a clear picture of your users’ experiences, you have to test from their perspective, their browsers and devices.
  • Optimize front-end performance first: Front-end performance improvements yield more impact while typically requiring less time and money than back-end projects.
  • Automate visual testing: The right testing solution must be automated, conduct regular tests from your end-users’ perspective, across multiple browser/platform combinations, that yield timely, actionable reports for effective command and control.

Do you think Web browser development is moving too fast? Check out the  Browser Fountain which illustrates how some developers and website owners may feel about faster browser release cycles.