Mozilla on Friday backtracked from a decision to suspend all work on a 64-bit version of Firefox for Windows, acknowledging that user criticism had changed its mind.
"After I announced my decision to disable 64-bit Windows nightlies, there was significant negative feedback," admitted Benjamin Smedberg, a contributor to the open-source browser, in a message to a Mozilla planning discussion group. "After reviewing that feedback, and consulting with Release Engineering, I believe that we can keep a set of users happy by making a modification to the original plan."
In November, after months of debate, Mozilla suspended development of 64-bit (x64) Firefox for Windows, citing add-on incompatibilities, problems deciphering crash reports, and a low priority for the project.
At the time, Smedberg said that Mozilla had already decided not to ship an x64 Windows Firefox in the first half of 2013, and perhaps not at all during the year.
The x64 Firefox has been available only in the very preliminary build channel Mozilla calls "nightlies," a label for unpolished daily versions. Mozilla maintains three build channels for the general public -- Aurora, analogous to an alpha; Beta; and Release -- but the x64 browser has never made it to Aurora, much less the more stable follow-ons.
Some users said they would dump Firefox because of the decision to abandon the x64 nightlies.
The biggest advantage of a 64-bit browser on a 64-bit operating system is that it can address more than the 4GB of memory available to a 32-bit application, letting users keep open hundreds of tabs without crashing the browser.
"It seems that there are users who regularly run into the 4GB memory limits of 32-bit builds," Smedberg said in his Dec. 21 message. "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."
At the moment, only Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) and Opera Software's Opera are available in x64 editions for Windows.
But while Mozilla's compromise means users will continue to have access to a 64-bit Firefox, the company will still scale back its efforts, said Smedberg, who outlined a number of caveats.
Testing of the x64 Windows version of Firefox will be discontinued, Smedberg said, and crash reporting -- one of the trouble spots earlier discussions argued -- will be disabled. Users will also be told point-blank that the version is not supported by Mozilla.
And customers must jump through a hoop or two to obtain future x64 updates. First, all current users on the 64-bit Firefox nightly channel will be automatically moved to the 32-bit nightly build. Those who want to continue to run the x64 browser must then manually download it.
The intent is clearly to get as many users now on the 64-bit nightly channel off it and onto the supported 32-bit Firefox.
At the same time, Smedberg gave no indication that the backtracking meant Mozilla would boost the x64 Firefox on its to-do list. The company has higher priorities, among them a Windows 8 Metro-style app, an expansion into social networking and an attempt to break into the mobile operating system market with Firefox OS.
Firefox x64's suspension is not likely permanent, however. Earlier this year, Asa Dotzler, director of Firefox, said development would probably be restarted in the future. "I do think we will eventually do a 64-bit release," Dotzler said in a discussion group last March. "That being said, I don't think it should be a priority right now given the many other things we've got on our plate."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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