Firefox to Drop Leopard Support. So What?
Netscape Navigator was the first widely popular Web browser, and when Netscape finally threw in the towel after years of fighting against Microsoft's Internet Explorer, it made Navigator an open source project. That project, Mozilla, has been producing new versions of the Firefox browser for over seven years now.
If you go to the Mozilla website, you'll see that its goal is to keep the Web free, open, and accessible to all.
With versions for Windows, Macs, Linux, and most mobile platforms, you'd think the Mozilla team has succeeded in doing just that, but there's a dark secret that only those on the Mac Web know about: We're being left behind.
While the latest version of Firefox still supports Windows XP (from 2001), now the world's second most popular operating system behind Windows 7, and Windows 2000 on 233 MHz Pentium computers with 64 MB of system memory - something you could buy in 1995 - it doesn't support a single Macintosh introduced prior to 2006.
A History of Dropping Old OS X Versions
The first version of Firefox supported Mac OS X 10.1 Puma (introduced Sept. 2001), but version 1.5 (May 2003) dropped support for it. Firefox 2, introduced in October 2006, supported OS X 10.2 Jaguar (August 2002) through 10.5 Leopard (October 2007). With Firefox 3 (June 2008), support for OS X 10.2 and 10.3 Panther (October 2003) was dropped.
Most recently, the Mozilla team dropped all support for PowerPC Macs and OS X 10.4 Tiger (April 2005). Firefox 4 (March 2011) and later only run on Intel-based Macs with OS X 10.5 or newer. (Three cheers for the TenFourFox team, which continues to optimize and compile Firefox source code to run on PowerPC Macs using OS X 10.4 and 10.5!)
Good-bye, Leopard Support
And now it looks like they're getting ready to drop support for Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, the operating system that a majority of Firefox users are running on their Macs at present. However, they predict that by the time Firefox 13 ships sometime in 2012, only 9% of Firefox Mac users will still be running Leopard.
By that reckoning, they shouldn't worry about supporting Windows 2000 or Windows Server 2003 - and by 2012, Windows Vista may also have dropped below the 10% mark. Maybe it's not a matter of market share, but of the raw number of users, since 15x as many Mozilla users run Windows.
Then they bring up the fact that Leopard is four years old, although it was the current Mac OS until late August 2009, when OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard replaced it. That's less than two-and-a-half years ago - and yet decade-old Windows XP is still supported, so it's obviously not a matter of age.
Okay, then there is the "strong case" for eliminating Leopard support: Technical challenges. Maybe now we're getting somewhere!
Mac users don't realize how much changes behind the scenes with every major revision of OS X. Apple adds new features and new technologies, deprecates or drops old ones, and introduces new development tools to take advantage of the so-called improvements. (Sorry, Apple, but dropping Rosetta support for PowerPC software in OS X 10.7 Lion was not an improvement - nor were a lot of new Lion features for longtime Mac users.)
The curious thing here is that the Mozilla team has already developed support for Leopard, and, as the TenFourFox team has demonstrated, Firefox can be ported to unsupported hardware and operating systems. In fact, TenFourFox goes beyond that and adds AltiVec-based optimizations that no other PowerPC browser has ever used. So even if Mozilla officially drops Leopard, it may well be possible for community builds to continue support.
Finally, there's the issue of security and software updates. Apple just doesn't release updates for Leopard any longer, so any security issues discovered in the past two years will never be addressed.
What Dropping Leopard Means
Apple no longer supports Leopard. Flash no longer supports Leopard. And it's inevitable that eventually Firefox will no longer support Leopard. But what does that really mean?
As someone who runs OS X 10.4, 10.5, and 10.6 Macs as production tools, it doesn't mean a lot. No, there haven't been any security updates for Tiger or Leopard in years, but neither has any malware come along to compromise my hardware. I run my browsers (primarily Camino, followed by TenFourFox, Safari, Firefox, and once in a while Chrome) with Flash disabled, and I haven't run into any problems yet with Flash-based content that isn't compatible with the versions installed on my aging PowerPC Macs.
No, we won't be able to run the latest and greatest version of Firefox on our Macs forever, but there really haven't been any significant developments on the Web that require the newest version. And as the world moves away from Flash videos to HTML5, our Leopard Macs may become more compatible with content, although newer, more powerful Macs running newer versions of OS X will probably run them more smoothly regardless of how they are encoded.
In the end, dropping Leopard support is not necessary, but it may be prudent. Only 15% of Mac users reading Low End Mac are using Leopard, and 40% of those are on PowerPC Macs that can't run Firefox 4 or later. OS X 10.6 and 10.7 account for 75% of our Mac traffic at present, and those numbers are probably higher on less Mac-oriented sites.
Losing official Firefox support just means that when they need more browser capabilities than they have at present, Leopard users will stick with the last supported version, look for another browser that still supports Leopard, or finally make the upgrade to Snow Leopard or Lion.
And frankly, if you're really that concerned about running the latest version of Firefox, you're probably running OS X 10.6 or 10.7. Firefox won't leave them behind for at least another year or so.
Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.
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