Data Science is Hard: ALSA in Firefox

(( We’re overdue for another episode in this series on how Data Science is Hard. Today is a story from 2016 which I think illustrates many important things to do with data. ))

It’s story time. Gather ’round.

In July of 2016, Anthony Jones made the case that the Mozilla-built Firefox for Linux should stop supporting the ALSA backend (and also the WinXP WinMM backend) so that we could innovate on features for more modern audio backends.

(( You don’t need to know what an audio backend is to understand this story. ))

The code supporting ALSA would remain in tree for any Linux distribution who wished to maintain the backend and build it for themselves, but Mozilla would stop shipping Firefox with that code in it.

But how could we ensure the number of Firefoxen relying on this backend was small enough that we wouldn’t be removing something our users desperately needed? Luckily :padenot had just added an audio backend measurement to Telemetry. “We’ll have data soon,” he wrote.

By the end of August we’d heard from Firefox Nightly and Firefox Developer Edition that only 3.5% and 2% (respectively) of Linux subsessions with audio used ALSA. This was small enough to for the removal to move ahead.

Fast-forward to March of 2017. Seven months have passed. The removal has wound its way through Nightly, Developer Edition, Beta, and now into the stable Release channel. Linux users following this update channel update their Firefox and… suddenly the web grows silent for a large number of users.

Bugs are filed (thirteen of them). The mailing list thread with Anthony’s original proposal is revived with some very angry language. It seems as though far more than just a fraction of a fraction of users were using ALSA. There were entire Linux distributions that didn’t ship anything besides ALSA. How did Telemetry miss them?

It turns out that many of those same ALSA-only Linux distributions also turned off Telemetry when they repackaged Firefox for their users. And for any that shipped with Telemetry at all, many users disabled it themselves. Those users’ Firefoxen had no way to phone home to tell Mozilla how important ALSA was to them… and now it was too late.

Those Linux distributions started building ALSA support into their distributed Firefox builds… and hopefully began reporting Telemetry by default to prevent this from happening again. I don’t know if they did for sure (we don’t collect fine-grained information like that because we don’t need it).

But it serves as a cautionary tale: Mozilla can only support a finite number of things. Far fewer now than we did back in 2016. We prioritize what we support based on its simplicity and its reach. That first one we can see for ourselves, and for the second we rely on data collection like Telemetry to tell us.

Counting things is harder than it looks. Counting things that are invisible is damn near impossible. So if you want to be counted: turn Telemetry on (it’s in the Preferences) and leave it on.

:chutten