Mozilla on Friday abruptly canceled the release of its touch-enabled Firefox browser for Windows 8, just four days before it was to ship and after two years of work.
Firefox for Windows 8 Touch, the browser destined for Windows 8's "Metro" user interface (UI) — the part of the OS that relies on colorful tiles, mobile-style apps and touch — will not be released March 18 as part of Firefox 28 as originally planned.
And in a strong signal of Microsoft's struggle to convince customers that Windows 8 is the right OS for the times, Mozilla blamed the operating system and its Metro mode.
"We've been watching Metro's adoption," said Johnathan Nightingale, vice president of Firefox, in a Friday blog. "From what we can see, it's pretty flat. On any given day we have, for instance, millions of people testing pre-release versions of Firefox desktop, but we've never seen more than 1,000 active daily users in the Metro environment."
Those anemic numbers haven't been enough to properly test Firefox on Metro, Nightingale continued, which meant that bugs would invariably slip through the cracks. "That's going to mean lots of bugs discovered in the field, requiring a lot of follow-up engineering, design, and QA effort. To ship it without doing that follow-up work is not an option," he said.
And with such low turn-out for the Metro Firefox, what was the point?
"When I talk about the need to pick our battles, this feels like a bad one to pick: significant investment and low impact," said Nightingale.
The cancelation of Firefox on Metro put a match, more or less, to two years of work by Mozilla's engineers and designers, although Nightingale said that the code would be mothballed, available at some later date if Metro suddenly got a growth spurt.
Mozilla began work on the Metro edition in March 2012. It shipped a preview in October 2012, several weeks before Microsoft launched Windows 8. At that time, Mozilla's schedule said the Firefox app might appear as early as January 2013. But the ambitious timetable was revised several times, until release plans finally firmed up and the March 18 date was nailed down.
Ironically, just as Mozilla was set to ship Metro Firefox, Microsoft was preparing a second round of changes that deemphasize the touch UI. Windows 8.1 Update, a follow-on to last year's Windows 8.1, will likely launch April 8. Although Microsoft has repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to Metro, the retreat from its original strategy — to force the UI on users — may have spooked Mozilla.
Nightingale pointed out that Mozilla had to carefully choose where it commits to compete and where does not. "We still need to focus on the projects with the most impact for our mission; the massive scale of our competitors and of the work to be done requires us to marshal our forces appropriately," Nightingale said.
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