Should a User Have a Choice When to Upgrade Their Browser?

I just did a post over on Ajaxian about Pingdom’s recent analysis of how frequently users upgrade their browsers. It’s a very conflicting topic for me which is why I chose to discuss it here.

From the report, it shows that Google’s Chrome has by far the fastest upgrade time of all the browsers, generally converting users within a month of a new release. This is primarily due to the browser’s use of automatic updating which has won accolades from many people in the development community who tend to cite IE6 still breathing as a great reason for having automatic updates.

This approach has both its merits and drawbacks. The obvious positive is that a user will receive important updates immediately ensuring that they will theoretically have a safer and more stable experience. The downside is that an update could actually mess up the browser (or computer) altogether as has happened on many occasions with antivirus programs. In addition, users no longer control the experience. Having worked at Mozilla, I know that they feel strongly that the user should have the ultimate choice of what goes on their computer. And I see the same thing now at Microsoft (where I’m now employed) and even Apple, where force-fed updates aren’t part of the process. They give users and companies the flexibility to decide when upgrading is right for them which I feel is extremely important. Obviously, the downside of the latter approach is that users are less inclined to actually upgrade, thus placing us into a situation where the 10-year old IE6 is still haunting us.

This is a tough situation because while users should have control, when they don’t upgrade it stifles developer abilities to push the web forward and can put these users at risk. I’m sure that the browser makers would be interested in your thoughts. What’s your take on this?

Full Disclosure: I previously worked at Mozilla and I am now employed at Microsoft.

Rey Bango


  1. I love progressive, but it would be nice if Chrome gave you an option to ‘keep me updated’ or ‘check with me first’ (ala Firefox)

    But if it meant getting rid of IE6 I wouldn’t complain if all browsers implemented Chrome’s methods, that must sound odd I know, but I’d rather the web be progressive than stagnant at the cost of one minor annoyance to myself :P

  2. Most users don’t even know what a “browser” is. That means it doesn’t matter to them if they have a choice to upgrade. I say, force-feed them, and do it transparently so they don’t have to restart anything if possible. If an update requires anything like a restart or other interruption, ask the user when to do that (but without popups or alert boxes!). Possibly, for more advanced users provide an opt-out of these automatic updates.

    I think Google Chrome does a great job (even though it’s mainly used by tech-savvy peeps, one of the reasons for the fast upgrades).

  3. Good question, Rey. As a web developer, I wish for everyone to be on the latest, greatest browsers. As a web consumer, I want control over when I upgrade. I think the balance that Apple and Mozilla have struck, where the user is shown there is an upgrade, and the process is made as seamless and simple as possible, is the right compromise.

  4. I agree – users should have ultimate control over what goes on their computer. But users have elected to install the Mozilla Firefox web browser. Pushing upgrades to this product that users have elected to install ensures the optimal operation of the software. Automatic updates are a benefit to the end user and developers alike.

  5. Automatic updates are especially important to a product like a web browser, which should be actively updated to counter new security threats.

  6. I think that the Chrome approach is the right one. Browsers aren’t like anti-virus programs that kill computers so forcing an upgrade is a good thing. I’ve seen way too many people tell Firefox to ignore the upgrade because they are a hurry to do something on the web and don’t want to be bothered. Additionally Firefox doesn’t prompt for an upgrade between major versions, so when 4 comes out, there will still be lots of people using 3, 3.5 and even 2.x.

  7. I think the Chrome approach should be the default approach. By default the browser should aim to be appliance-like. As others have stated, most non-computer savvy folks struggle with exactly what a browser is, and how it differs from an operating system.
    However, those who do want or need control should have it.
    So I think the default behaviour of a browser should be Chrome style, but they should be configurable to use Firefox style behaviour, and also to allow centralised update control for enterprise environments.

  8. For personal PC’s, yes. For businesses, no. Businesses need the opportunity to test IMHO.

  9. I’ve always felt the greatest failing of IE is the inability to have multiple versions run side by side. If you want to give users CHOICE then let them choose which version of IE to launch for which web site/application.

    This lets them browse legacy apps that rely on old quirky behaviour, but enjoy the technology advances in other sites.

  10. The web developer in me wants to say “Upgrade them! Upgrade them all and damn the consequences” because as you so rightly point out, it makes life so much easier knowing that I can code to an expected modern standard.

    However I remember a conference a few years back where Scott Hanselman mentioned “I don’t think users want to be taught”. In other words, don’t move their cheese.

    It can be frustrating and even stressful for the Mom & Pop users who seriously don’t know a thing about computers. These are the ones Thomas Fuchs is referring to as not distinguishing between the browser and the actual internet. They refer to Internet Explorer, Google and the like collectively as “The Internet” and don’t see the same delineations the rest of us do.

    Regular upgrades to browsers are great in principle and I believe they should happen automatically for security and stability reasons, but when the UI is significantly altered (a la IE9), that’s when I think it’s more appropriate to prompt the user to take a more active role.

  11. I think that minor updates (security fixes, etc) should be installed automatically but users should be given a choice for large updates which change major functionality. An example of this would be if Mozilla Firefox updated automatically from 3.6.15 to 3.6.16 but asked the user if they wanted to upgrade to 4.0.

    Software which either forces you to upgrade to newer versions without asking or keeps pestering you to update after you have said no (Mozilla, I’m looking at you..) is evil.

  12. How are browsers at all comparable to anti-virus programs? When AV updates break things, it’s because they have to root around in your system; browsers don’t.

    Do you think web applications should also ask users to “upgrade” when they implement new features? Web-based software operates differently than traditional software, web browsers should be part of that as well.

  13. IE6 still hanging around has a lot to do with how much Windows XP was pirated. Also I’m pretty sure Microsoft tried automatically updating to IE7 with Windows Update.

    Chrome updates are a lot less intrusive than what I experienced back in Firefox. Doesn’t delay startup with a massive download or disable half your addons.

  14. I agree completely with Sam – the default should be the automated updates like Chrome, with an option for those who care and have a process for controlled rollouts for large IT departments to control for corporate environments.

    On my personal PCs, I find the Chrome model very nice, as I don’t ever even have to care about it, the updates just happen and I’m golden. Firefox is just annoying with the constant prompts for update which require a browser restart, which of course open a page indicating what changed – I typically don’t care what has changed, just do the update and be done with it. The addin update procedure on Firefox is even worse – popup, followed by a browser restart followed by another popup. Grrr. That is one of the reasons I rarely use Firefox anymore, and once IE9 is finally released I’ll likely retire Firefox as my secondary browser for these reasons alone.

  15. I think its about semantics ; with IE/Firefox the choice users make is “install Firefox 3.6” or “install IE 8”. Therefore “Firefox 4.0” or “IE 9” are different pieces of software. However with Chrome, the users’ choice is “install Chrome” – no version number. Chrome is a software “subscription” rather than a software release.

    Maybe these are word games but I think these are important distinctions. And it makes life much easier for web developers: there is only one version of Chrome to design for – the latest one. Occasionally they will back-out/modify a feature and someone will get stung (like I did personally with websocket experimentation) but Chrome moves fast and in the long term there is a single target – a dream compared to the “compatibility mode” approach of IE

  16. Like most people have said, to me the chrome approach is the right one to follow. Most average users don’t bother with upgrades. I have come across various people complaining why a website would look differently if they view it from their laptop, only to find out that their laptops had IE6 installed.

    The major issue with using latest web technologies has always been browser support. Fortunately enough, Google has find its way to speed up internet technology growth. Other browser vendors should no doubt follow a similar approach.

  17. I think what IE should do (similar to what Firefox, Safari, and Opera do) is when an update is available pop up a box telling the user about it and recommending that they upgrade their browser. This should happen when the user opens the browser … not just as a part of the windows update process. The browser is such an import thing right now that its update process should be available with the browser itself. Also IE users should be given the opportunity to auto-update their browser separately from the auto-update windows functionality.

  18. @John: Yes, completely agree. For a browser to be usable in an enterprise it needs to allow for its patching to be fully manageable. Of course that comes as part of a broader requirement for enterprise config management, including the ability to lock down parts of the config, and manage that config via policy.

    @Peter Powell: Yes agreed. Part of the appliance nature means no surprises, so whilst minor updates should default to being invisible, major updates should have some visibility. I’d argue that unless a change potentially breaks a previous use case of the browser (e.g. removal of a feature), the default mode for a major update should be for it to install automatically with the user receiving a notification of the change including a clear explanation. This feels most appliance like, and fits in with the push to keep users on current versions.
    I’m guessing the reason Chrome gets away with never notifying users of an update is that it’s never actually had major changes, at least not whilst I’ve been using it. Whereas changing from IE 8 to 9 silently is going to scare users.

Comments are closed.