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Will Linux Users Miss Out on Firefox 3?

Firefox and Linux
With the new Firefox 3 Web browser set for release tomorrow, tens of millions of Mozilla Firefox users on Windows will get an update notification directly from Mozilla to upgrade.

But most Linux may be left in the dark, at least temporarily.

That's because most users of Linux distributions do not get their Firefox browser directly from Mozilla. Instead, they get Firefox packages through their Linux distros.

Linux versions of Firefox, which are sometimes customized by the distribution's creator, also do not have the "Check for Updates" button enabled in the browser -- while the button is enabled on Windows editions.

The issue most recently came to the forefront after both Red Hat Fedora and Ubuntu shipped their recent Linux versions with Firefox 3 Beta 5. When the browser's later Release Candidates 1 (RC1) and Release Candidate 2 (RC2) versions came out, users of the both popular distributions did not immediately get update notifications like their Windows counterparts.

So, with the actual Firefox 3 release, will Linux users get Firefox at the same time as Windows users? It depends.

Mozilla releases files available for Linux in the archived tarball format at the same time it makes Window and Mac versions available. As a result, this means a Linux user could get the file from Mozilla and install it on their own -- though that's not likely the best option for many users.

"We've found that it's hard for a lot of Linux users to install software still, so a lot of stuff coming through the distributions tends to be a better experience," Mozilla's Mike Beltzner told InternetNews.com.

Mozilla does not release a package file for any specific Linux distribution.

"Any Linux distro is able to take our code and bundle it with their distribution," Beltzner said. "What we found is that because those operating systems are updating their own packages in certain chunks it's a lot easier for them to maintain their own code. Some of them actually patch Firefox for their specific distributions so that tends to be a better way of doing things."

Matt Zimmerman, CTO of Ubuntu's lead commercial sponsor Canonical, explained to InternetNews.com that the reason why Ubuntu disables Firefox's built-in update mechanism to provide a consistent update experience for all of the software that Ubuntu provides.

"Ubuntu provides users with select, targeted bug fixes and security updates through a standard mechanism, and full-blown new feature releases of all components and applications every six months," Zimmerman said. "This way, we ensure that updates to Firefox work the same way as updates to all of the other applications in Ubuntu, and the same policies can be applied using the standard tools."

For Red Hat, the rationale behind building its own Firefox packages is much the same.

Daniel Riek, product manager for Red Hat Enterprise Linux, said the Firefox packages that ship in Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Fedora have been built by Red Hat and optimized for these products. As a result, they make use of Red Hat features like its run-time security enhancements.

Building its own packages also helps tackle some support issues, Riek told InternetNews.com.

"There is the additional challenge of hardware architectures not supported by upstream Mozilla.org, and old versions of Enterprise Linux that are still supported by Red Hat," Riek said. "It would be hard to find a browser for Red Hat Enterprise Linux 2.1 on Itanium. Red Hat still builds the old [pre-Firefox] Mozilla browser for that platform under the name SeaMonkey."

Despite similar aims, Ubuntu and Red Hat differ slightly when it came to the Release Candidates leading up to the final Firefox 3. Red Hat did not make either RC1 or RC2 available to users, while Ubuntu did -- albeit a bit later than Windows users, who received them directly from Mozilla.

Red Hat's Riek explained his company's decision as having been influenced by difficulties in coordinating release schedules with Mozilla. Additionally, since Red Hat felt the differences in RC1 and RC2 ultimately were not that different from the beta version already shipping with its distro, it chose not to deliver the Release Candidates.

For Ubuntu, Zimmerman explained that Ubuntu's updates were delayed through its quality assurance process, designed to ensure packages work as expected before users install them.

"This process takes some time, but we've followed the release candidates closely," Zimmerman said. "We have already released RC1 to all users, and RC2 is currently in testing and available to users who wish to test."

The biggest question, however, is whether or not Firefox 3 will be available to Ubuntu and Red Hat users from their respective distribution on the actual Firefox 3 release date, June 17. There, too, Ubuntu and Red Hat may differ.

Red Hat plans to make the final version of Firefox 3 available to Fedora and RHEL customers on June 17.

"Red Hat is already preparing to rebase to the final upstream codebase and ship a new binary to Fedora and Red Hat Enterprise Linux users," Riek said.

Ubuntu, however, may see its package delayed.

"We will make the final version available to our users through our normal update process, which means that once it is officially released by Mozilla, we will test it before releasing it to users," Zimmerman said. "This means that it may not be available on the same day, but when we do release it, users can be assured that it will work for them."

Consequently, while not all Linux users will be prompted to get Firefox 3 on its release day, some users may still receive the update even though their default "Check for Updates" mechanism is disabled -- a situation that Mozilla's Beltzner dismissed as necessary.

"There is no conspiracy there," he said. "We tend to work with the distros to make sure that it works out as best as possible."