In a move that will not affect 99 percent of users, but will greatly please a small minority of its user base, Mozilla Engineering Manager Benjamin Smedberg reversed his controversial decision to kill availability of 64-bit builds of the Firefox browser.
But the move was a half-hearted one, as Mozilla still is sticking to the party line: Its 64-bit development for Windows is over, for now.
The November suspension was justified by a list of complaints raised -- some of them valid, others not so much. The biggest complaint Smedberg voiced was that moving Firefox to 64-bit builds simply wasn’t that high a priority to most of its users. That’s technically correct. Only users who demand hundreds of tabs open at once need to go beyond the 2GB memory envelope of 32-bit Firefox without crashes. Most users will never hit that limitation.
But some will. Microsoft and Opera already have 64-bit browsers. Apple and Google are actively working on 64-bit browsers. Clearly demand for this improvement is small, but not non-existent.
Other criticisms were more questionable. Smedberg complained that the bug reports from users testing the 64-bit browsers were hard to read. But the onus for that difficulty -- and the responsibility for remedying it -- ultimately rests on Mozilla’s contributors. And his criticism about plug-in incompatibility seems weak given the availability of 64-bit builds of top plug-ins like Flash and Java.
As frustrating as Mozilla’s decision and justifications were, it was even more troubling that Mozilla decided to deny users access to code that was already complete. Smedberg appears to have finally realized that. He wrote in his blog:
It seems that there are users who regularly run into the 4GB memory limits of 32-bit builds. These users often have hundreds or even thousands of tabs. These users are using the 64-bit nightlies not primarily to be part of our testing community, but because those builds are the best product available.
So the good news is that the nightlies are going to be available once more.
The bad news is that Mozilla’s decision to discontinue development still stands. That leaves the x64 bit version in a pre-Aurora stage. (Mozilla maintains three primary build channels: Aurora -- alpha builds; Beta; and the Release.)
Mozilla also is taking other steps to largely follow through with its original intention of killing 64-bit development. It will shuffle registered x64 users to the 32-bit release channel, forcing them to manually download the x64 nightlies if they want them. It will remove bug reporting in the nightlies.
I will say that I think Mozilla is right about one thing: Its top priority should be in making a polished Metro-style Firefox browser app for Windows 8, as that is the push that will benefit the most users overall as consumers (and to a lesser extent enterprises) shift to Windows 8. But I also say we power users shouldn’t let Mozilla off the hook so easily, just because it restored the nightlies.
The fact remains that for many power users, the best browser (or perhaps only useable browser) is a stable 64-bit browser. If Mozilla is incapable of delivering or is unwilling to deliver the best browser for these users, it calls into question its more outside-the-box efforts -- which include a smartphone OS and a social network.
After all, if a browser company can’t at least try to make the best, most full-featured browser available, how can its other efforts be taken seriously? And for that matter, how can enterprise users take a browser-maker that seems disinterested in developing for power users seriously? Mozilla still has some soul-searching to do.
— Jason Mick is senior news editor at the independent tech news site DailyTech.