Categories: Discussions

Moving Firefox 3 product help to the web

With Firefox 3 Beta 5 just released, a lot of people have probably noticed that we’re no longer using the built-in product help, but instead linking to help content on the web. I’d like to take the opportunity to clarify why we did that in case there are people who weren’t aware of the decision, or forgot why it was made in the first place.

First, though, a clarification: what you’re seeing today in Firefox 3 when selecting Help from the menu is just a temporary, static page that acts as a placeholder for the real help content hosted on SUMO. We’re still working on the performance issues that hit us last week, but should soon be able to link to the actual documentation again. We’re also still working on finalizing the English help content so localizers can start translating it. More on that later.

So, why are we moving product help to the web? There are actually several reasons for it, and they’ve even changed over time. To me, the three top reasons are:

  1. Lower technical barriers for volunteers who want to improve the content
    No need for a CVS or SVN account, or using complicated programs and commands to edit content — just click “Edit this page” on an article directly from your browser and start improving it. This also has the potential of reducing the workload for the main content contributors, who often work on their own with documentation, requiring lots of time.
  2. Dynamic content
    By putting the content on a wiki-like web site, we’re no longer strictly tied to Firefox releases — if a typo is discovered on a page, it can easily be fixed right away, instead of having to wait until the next point release. In addition, this makes the documentation more organic; continuously improving and changing based on user’s needs.
  3. More exposure to the SUMO project
    As the project manager of SUMO, listing that as a top reason might come across to some people as rather selfish, but it’s really anything but. By getting more eyes on the project, the number of people getting involved with it increases. In the end, this leads to higher quality Firefox support, which benefits everyone. That’s our main goal here: to improve the support experience for our users.

Of course, there are other benefits as well, such as the ability to serve richer content like video tutorials, but the three reasons above are definitely the most important ones in my opinion.

One concern/objection I’ve heard a few times is of what use online support is if a user can’t connect to the internet in the first place. Let’s talk a little bit about that. This is indeed a problem, but it’s actually something that has been a problem in Firefox for a long time. Even if Firefox 2 has product help available when the browser is offline, there’s no troubleshooting information for connection problems bundled, so you’re still out of luck if you can’t connect. So my answer to this concern is that it’s more or less moot, since we’re not making the situation any worse by moving Firefox 3 product help to the web (but we’re admittedly not improving it either). Ideally, Firefox should do a simple self-diagnostics when it can’t connect, to determine or suggest the solution to the problem and present that on a page similar to the other in-product error pages. This has been in the plans for a while, but I don’t know about the status of it today.

I hope this gives you a better understanding of why we moved the help back online, and please don’t hesitate to comment here or in the newsgroup if you have any thoughts or questions.

9 comments on “Moving Firefox 3 product help to the web”

  1. Robert wrote on

    You are forgetting about enterprise users behind a firewall, they use the browser in the intranet, and they have the right to be able to open the help and read information like shortcuts, or the page that has help for IE users, etc. at least there must be a bundle of the documentation that can be installed on an intranet server and the URL must be customizable

  2. Sohail Mirza wrote on

    I’m not certain I understand the justification for tying Firefox help to online resources in the event that a user is offline. Just because a user is offline it doesn’t render the product useless, and we’re talking about product help, right?

    Say I’m offline, and working on some local HTML content, or my Gears synchronized Google Reader account. I may still have a need for valid product support.

    Also, since I mention Gears, wouldn’t it be possible for Firefox to cache the online help content locally in the event that the user *does* go offline? As I understand it, Firefox 3 features a local data store and new offline features.

  3. Jason Barnabe wrote on

  4. Steuard wrote on

    What I’ve noticed is that after updating to Firefox 3 beta 5 on Mac OS 10.5 (Leopard), any attempt to mouse over the Help menu freezes the browser and requires me to force quit. I haven’t had a chance to file a bug yet (or to search for existing ones); if you could post a bug reference for this change (and possibly for this freeze), I’d love to see it! (Make it a lot easier to narrow down a regression range.)

    I’ve tried it with both my usual profile and a clean one: breaks either way. I suspect that the issue has something to do with Leopard’s help-indexing feature: the Leopard help menu always has a search field on top of it.

  5. Josh wrote on

    To concur with Robert’s comment, a lot of computers at my company are specifically disallowed from connecting to the Internet. More precisely, there are a number of disjoint networks in labs, in addition to the regular Internet-connected corporate LAN. There’s still plenty of internal web pages to be viewed in this setup, and help should be available. Microsoft Office has gone a similar route with online help, but still installs with a set of help files (and has a config option to tell it to never try to find the online help).

  6. Steuard wrote on

    Never mind, looks like the regression I’m seeing happened well before these changes landed. (And it seemed like such a natural connection, too. Oh well.)

  7. ChrisJF wrote on

    I don’t know if anybody considered users with Dial Up connections to the internet. The good thing about having built-in product help is you don’t have to wait ages for a pages to load just to solve a minor problem. Waiting gets really frustrating on dial up. The built-in product help is much faster for users on dial up. I know dial up users are a minority but they are still there.

  8. guanxi wrote on

    Users may not be able to access online Help for many reasons, including some posted above, not necessarily due to connection problems.

    How about including a local copy of the online Help — sans rich media — with Firefox. Add links that say ‘Updated information may be available online, click here’. Or, automatically take users to the online page, and fail gracefully to the offline version. You could even update the offline content with Firefox updates, sending the diffs. Those should be small updates.

  9. Omnisilver wrote on

    Is it possible to make a «help» extension for the users who needs a in-product help ?