The secret sauce to rapid release apps in the enterprise

Enterprise conservatism and progressive development can work

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Mozilla got a big boost this week with the release of the second Alpha of Ubuntu 11.10, which now features Mozilla Thunderbird 5 as the default e-mail client for the popular desktop Linux distribution.

It is not clear why the decision was made to shift to Thunderbird from Evolution, though the move has raised some speculation about a long-term Canonical plan to dump all things GNOME. Ever since the row with GNOME over Ubuntu's use of the Unity shell as opposed to GNOME 3 shell, there's been talk that Ubuntu developers will be slowly peeling away from GNOME applications. One article has even kicked out Empathy in place of Pidgin already, though no such move has actually happened.

[Also see: How to get Windows and Linux to cooperate on the network and Best Firefox extensions: Organize your way to a better Firefox]

More likely, Canonical was attracted by the web-friendliness of the Thunderbird platform and--knowing Mark Shuttleworth and his designer team--the Thunderbird 5 interface probably had more appeal to them in Unity than Evolution.

Another reason for the move might be that Thunderbird 5 is the first release of Mozilla's messaging client that will be part of Thunderbird's new rapid-release cycle. Canonical seems to have a preference for such cycles. Shuttleworth recently revealed in an interview that he has been eyeing Google Chrome as a potential replacement for Firefox as the default browser for Ubuntu. Chrome's rapid release cycle is the main impetus for Mozilla's own adoption of faster development cycles, first for Firefox and then for Thunderbird, and Shuttleworth has been impressed with the work on Chrome so far.

If you think about Ubuntu's move to a cloud-friendly desktop, then you can put the GNOME conspiracy theories aside and see the move to Thunderbird for what it is: making Ubuntu the best interface for Web-based services.

But here's my question: can Ubuntu (or any other distro that relies on rapid-release apps) expect to make a significant dent in the enterprise, which has proven very resistant to rapid release?

The issue came to a head last month, during an online discussion on Firefox developer Mike Kaply's blog lamenting the rapid release cycle as extremely difficult for businesses to use:

"As person involved in the corporate deployment of Firefox, I think it's a really bad idea. Companies simply can't turn around major browser updates in six weeks (and each one of these is a major update). With security releases, there was a reasonable expectation that web applications wouldn't break as a result of changes. With these releases, 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 would already be released so they'd already be behind. And in the mean time, all of their browsers will be insecure, because all security updates are rolled into the major versions."

It was a pretty salient commentary, but what really attracted the attention of the media were the comments in Kaply's follow-up blog entry from Firefox Product Manager Asa Dotzler, who basically threw corporate users under a bus:

"Mike, you do realize that we get about 2 million Firefox downloads per day from regular user types, right? Your 'big numbers' here are really just a drop in the bucket, fractions of fractions of a percent of our user base.

"Enterprise has never been (and I'll argue, shouldn't be) a focus of ours. Until we run out of people who don't have sysadmins and enterprise deployment teams looking out for them, I can't imagine why we'd focus at all on the kinds of environments you care so much about."

That set off a firestorm of commentary (even a snarky Tweet from me on vacation) on what Mozilla was thinking. Abandon the enterprise user? Hand the corporate market to Internet Explorer?

(This isn't the first time Dotzler has been outspoken. The same week he made his comments on Kaplay's blog, he announced on his own blog that he would be dropping Thunderbird in favor of Postbox. Dotzler has since removed that post from his home page and apologized.)

Mozilla has spent time since trying to spin this back under control, emphasizing that they understand the challenges of corporate IT users and are working on potential solutions.

Basically, there are two main options to solving the integration of rapid release cycles into the enterprise, and we may need to look for a combination of these approaches for Firefox, Thunderbird, Chrome, and other rapid release apps.

The first option, and one that was actually in some discussion in the Mozilla lists even prior to Kaply's blog, it to come up with some form of long term support version of the application in question. This would provide companies a nice security blanket of support while the rapid releases keep on going.

The second option, on which all of these applications are counting, will be that developers will implement true standards. If web pages and web applications use standards, for example, then it won't matter which release of the browser is being used: the content will Just Work.

I'm sticking in the browser space since it's much on our minds now, but standards will work with any rapid-release app. LibreOffice is starting to barrel through their faster development cycle, and they can do that because of the Open Document Format used for the suite's content.

Standards, you see, will be the secret to any rapid-release app's success. Get the content standardized, and you can add all the features you want. But that puts the onus on corporate developers and users to actually use those standards, something that organizations like Mozilla will need to continually emphasize to their corporate end users. If that education is successful, then we should see these integration pains between rapid release and enterprise priorities fade.

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