Development projects are often required to make hard decisions about where
to apply their effort; developer and tester time is a scarce resource, so
choices must be made. It is not uncommon that those choices will be
unpopular with some, perhaps quite vocal, segment of the user community,
but users need to recognize that prioritization has to occur. Free
software projects, even those backed by foundations or corporations, are
obviously not immune to the need for focus. A recent discussion about
Mozilla dropping support for Mac OS X 10.4 shows that some users still
don't quite understand the issue—especially when it is their platform
that will be affected.
It all started with a
post by Mozilla's Josh Aas about making a
final decision on whether to support Mac OS X 10.4 ("Tiger") in the version
of the Gecko rendering engine that will be the basis of the next Firefox
release (3.7 or higher). He listed statistics of the number of Mac users
that still use 10.4, which was released in 2005, and noted that there were
significant hurdles to continuing to support that release in the codebase.
Furthermore, he pointed out that there will be a roughly yearlong
The approximately 25% of our Mac OS X users still on 10.4 would
continue to be supported by Firefox 3.6 until that product reaches end
of service, which won't be until several months after the next major
version of Firefox is delivered (built on Gecko 1.9.3) later this
year. Past data shows that we do not lose appreciable market share
when we stop supporting a Mac OS X version. We are often one of the
last vendors to continue supporting older Mac OS X releases, and I
suspect that by the time this becomes an issue Apple may themselves
have stopped issuing security updates for Mac OS X 10.4.
But that didn't sit well with some Mac users. Phillip Jones argued against dropping support because it
would require hardware and/or software upgrades—at a substantial
monetary cost—for those who still use 10.4. He also claimed to be
speaking for lots of others:
And I am not the only one. I just happen to be the only one to voice an
opinion. Most just take what they are given and stew in the
Others chimed in to agree with Jones, but anecdotal stories about
individuals who are unable to upgrade doesn't really help in the decision.
Asa Dotzler points out the kind of
information that would be useful:
Since this decision won't be made because a few users visiting this forum
are still bound to 10.4, this kind of advocacy doesn't help much. If you
can add more precise usage data to this discussion than what Josh offered
in the initial post, please do. If you know of other kinds of data that
represents large numbers of Mac or Firefox users that hasn't already been
mentioned, please add that.
Dotzler continues by noting that the decision is not being made lightly,
nor is it being made in a vacuum, but some kind of prioritization needs to
I (and I'm sure others here) recognize that tens or even hundreds of
thousands of users will be left behind in a year or so if we stop support
for 10.4. We understand that. If we tried to support 100% of operating
systems out there, the project would collapse.
That means we have to pick our target versions carefully. Do you have some
suggestion about what that cut-off should be that goes further than "not
the platform I'm on" ?
Many of those who are against the change are making a "not in my
backyard" (NIMBY) argument, as Dotzler points out. Others believe that
because Mozilla gets millions of dollars in revenue, it should plow
some of that money into supporting 10.4. It is not a terribly reasonable
argument, as organizations should be able to make their own decisions about
staffing and such. It is also a bit ironic that folks claim that Mozilla should
support them in ways that Apple will not.
The real problem stems from Apple's decision to only support 10.5 ("Leopard") on some
PowerPC Macs, and to only support 10.6 ("Snow Leopard") on Intel Macs. In
charges for each upgrade, which potentially leaves those who are
financially strapped behind.
It is not particularly fair to blame Mozilla for something that has its
roots in Apple's upgrade strategy.
Those calling for Mozilla to go the extra mile for 10.4 are really asking
for a "disproportionate investment", according to Mozilla's Boris Zbarsky. In
addition, they haven't made a good case for why that should be:
"No one has cited a good
reason why 10.4 users matter more than 10.5 or 10.6 users or Windows or
Linux users." There are technical reasons why support for 10.4 is hard,
as Aas outlined at the start of the thread, so there needs to be a
compelling reason to do it.
Allocating resources is a difficult problem sometimes, but one gets the
sense that Mozilla developers are pretty convinced that 10.4 is not a good
use of their efforts. Mozilla VP of Engineering Mike Shaver also
points out that Apple seems to have left
What amount of resource should we divert from other areas,
such that we can support a small-and-shrinking number of users on a
trailing edge version of a deeply-minority platform from which we get
decreasingly poor support from the OS vendor as it ages? (When we
report even *security-related* bugs in older system libraries to
Apple, we often get a pretty cold response. This may not be a problem
that the WebKit or Safari teams face, but I can't really know for
It would be easy to write this off as a problem for folks that have chosen
a proprietary operating system, but this same problem is regularly faced by
those who run free systems. Projects frequently make decisions on their focus: distributions choose architectures to support, applications
choose which features to implement or what desktop to support, and so on.
Users need to find a way to make reasoned arguments about what they would
like to see happen, while understanding that the project itself gets to
make its own decisions. On the flipside, projects need to provide a means
for users to give their input, hopefully in a constructive manner.
Advocacy—along with venting—in bug reports was another problem
discussed in the thread. "Piling on" to bug reports and feature requests is a common reaction
for users who are frustrated with the choices a project is making, as we
saw last August for KDE.
More recently, the addition of
CNNIC to the Mozilla certificate store also had many impassioned users
commenting on the bug, but without providing the kinds of information
needed by the project to assist its decision making process.
Some kind of balance needs to be found, where users feel like their voice
is being heard, without overwhelming the developers and project leaders who
are trying to do their jobs. For free software projects, though, there is
a potential solution that is not available for those using proprietary
systems: the code is available if someone wants to put together a project
to go a different direction. While some Apple users will never be able to
run more recent versions of Mac OS on their hardware, they most certainly
could put together a project to continue supporting Firefox on those older
versions. It would be a lot of work, but that's a much better situation
than for Mac OS where it would simply be impossible.
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