Mozilla to launch new Firefox feature testing program

Mozilla plans to launch a new testing program next month that will let Firefox users try out potential changes to the browser, according to documents published by the open-source developer.

Dubbed "Idea Town" for now, the opt-in program is to kick off Aug. 11 with a teaser in the browser's new tab page inviting users to register, with additional elements added over the following three months until the testing infrastructure is complete and operational.

Idea Town's goal is to solicit feedback from users of its most-stable build channel -- labeled "Release" by Mozilla -- to help it decide whether to pull the trigger on new features and UI modifications before adding them to the usual 18-week development cycle.

"Idea Town is an opt-in platform for Firefox that facilitates controlled tests of new high-visibility products in the general release channel," Mozilla said in a GitHub page for the project. "Idea Town will allow us to make informed & user tested product decisions quickly and without compromising user privacy or experience."

That's a different approach than Mozilla now uses, and which Microsoft runs with its Windows Insider program, when developers and designers decide on a new feature, then add it to early builds, where the changes track through several iterations to shake out bugs in the code. Instead, Idea Town will target the "average" Firefox user; preliminary builds are mostly run by early adopters, whose opinions may not reflect the general user base.

"Idea Town is not intended to replace [release] trains for most features, nor is it a testbed for concepts we do not believe have a strong chance of shipping in general release," said Mozilla in one planning document available publicly. "Rather, it is reserved for features that require user-feedback, testing and tuning before they ship with the browser."

The primary goal of Idea Town, said Mozilla, is to "let us take larger risks with product concepts, giving us a cheap avenue to test and validate product concepts." It would also allow Mozilla to measure interest in potential Firefox features.

Mozilla will use the tag line, "The future of the Fox" to entice users to sign up with Idea Town.

By Nov. 3, when Idea Town is to be fully fleshed out, Mozilla will have created and distributed a Firefox add-on that manages the potential new features and changes -- they will be bundled into discrete "experiments" -- shipped an experiment package, and set up ways for users to easily add themselves to the testing program or drop out without having to roll back to a different build of the browser.

Among some candidates for an Idea Town experiment, Mozilla said in the planning document, are vertical tabs, tab badging -- where a browser tab offers additional information, like the number of new tweets when the tab represents -- and tab snoozing. The latter was explained in a document that accompanied a test add-on for Firefox created by the Firefox UX (user experience) team (download PDF).

Although the Idea Town planning document did not make it explicit, the concept is clearly one part of the changes that a Mozilla official outlined earlier this month. Then, Dave Camp, director of Firefox engineering, said that Mozilla had to shorten "the time that new features reach users" and accelerate the browser's release tempo.

The current plan is to ship Firefox 40, slated to release Aug. 11, with the Idea Town teaser on its new tab page, then add components to Firefox 41 (Sept. 21 release) and complete the process by Firefox 42 (Nov. 3).

The current edition, Firefox 39, can be downloaded for Windows, OS X and Linux from Mozilla's website.


Gregg Keizer

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