Mozilla kicks off Firefox 5, faster release schedule

Launches 'Aurora' channel with first test version of new browser slated to ship in June

Mozilla this week launched into its new faster-tempo development program for Firefox 5.

The first version of what will eventually become Firefox 5 hit Mozilla's new "Aurora" channel -- a development line meant to bridge the gap between the roughest versions and a more stable beta -- on April 12, and on schedule.

Shortly before launching Firefox 4 last month, Mozilla began laying out plans for a sped-up cycle designed to generate a new version of its browser every six to 12 weeks. At the time, engineers at the open-source company said they would expand Firefox's then-current three "channels" of development to four by adding Aurora.

"Users can expect an increase in polish from the raw, cutting edge features in our nightly builds, [but] Aurora releases may not be as stable as beta or final releases," said Damon Sicore, senior director of platform engineering, in a blog post describing the new channel.

Sicore noted that the fresh-baked Aurora included "performance, security and stability improvements," but did not go into more detail.

In a more technical blog post, Christian Legnitto, who oversees Firefox releases, outlined the reasons why Mozilla shifted to a four-step development system -- nightly, Aurora, beta and release -- and how that will solve multiple problems.

Aurora is analogous to Google Chromes "dev" channel, and other software makers' "alpha" designations for relatively unstable, early versions that in time lead to beta.

Under the new development regime, Mozilla engineers will add new features as they're completed, rather than waiting for months while work on the next upgrade is completed. If a feature starts presenting major problems during testing -- say in the Aurora or beta channels -- it will be yanked, then re-inserted into a later cycle after fixes have been applied.

Chrome, the first browser to dramatically accelerate its development schedule, sports a similar process to continually feed features to a line that produces a new version every six-to-eight weeks.

Mozilla has taken a step that Chrome hasn't, however: It marks the Aurora build with a different icon to remind users that they're running a pre-beta version.

Previously, Mozilla had staked out a schedule for Firefox 5 that ends June 21 with the release of the final, polished version. Interim deadlines included April 12, when the first of the Aurora editions were to release, and May 17, the day Firefox 5 is to enter beta.

Even Microsoft has jumped on the faster-is-better bandwagon. Earlier this week, it started showing previews of Internet Explorer 10 (IE10), a move that analysts said hinted at an annual release schedule, twice as fast as previous versions.

The Aurora build of Firefox 5 can be downloaded from Mozilla's site, and can be run side-by-side with the production version of Firefox 4.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

Read more about browsers in Computerworld's Browsers Topic Center.

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Gregg Keizer

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