Google on Tuesday released Chrome 100, an iteration of the dominant browser that can trip up websites that weren’t written to handle three-digit version numbers. It’s a problem that, though rare, also affects people using Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Edge.
The problem crops up because developers sometimes try to adapt their websites for particular browser versions, for example by removing features that won’t work on older releases. Browsers share their version number through a short text description called the user agent string, but website scripts sometimes extract just two of the three digits in the version number.
Problems can include websites not working at all or showing a popup erroneously saying your browser is out of date† Problems using Chrome, Firefox and Edge have been reported at sites including Mercedes-Benz, a license plate renewal tool in Ontario, Canada, IMB Bank in Australia and India’s Space Resource Organization. Some sites built with the also showed problems, according to Chrome’s bug tracker. Although Duda fixed the issue before Chrome 100 shipped, several other sites are still affected.
Software that breaks as time passes is nothing unusual. Programmers make mistakes, software foundations like iOS and Windows change every year, engineers update internet communication standards and online services change their programming interfaces. With billions of Chrome users, though, this ticking of the Chrome version update clock is a widespread issue across the globe.
The browser version number problem resembles the Y2K problem 22 years ago, when software that recorded only the last two digits of the year was thrown off when 1999 became 2000. A similar problem is coming in 2038 when a 32-bit number that some computers use to count the seconds from Jan. 1, 1970, is no longer large enough.
Mozilla has warned of similar problems for Firefox, due to reach version 100 on May 5. Firefox includes a list of “interventions” that can fix problems like the version number issue with specific websites. Microsoft Edge, now based on Google’s open-source Chromium browser foundation, also can have problems.
Up until the 1990s, when software was updated by issuing new floppy disks or CD-ROMs, updates and new version numbers were a rarity. But Google changed all that in 2008 with the release of Chrome, embracing a quarterly update cycle that brought new version numbers every three months. Mozilla’s Firefox followed suit, and since then Chrome moved to even faster six-week and now four-week cadence.
The idea, increasingly common in the software world, is that it’s easier for developers and software users to manage lots of small changes than infrequent, disruptive overhauls. In effect, software becomes a continuously updated project that can respond more quickly to security problems and deliver new features as soon as they’re done.
That means consumers often pay less attention to version numbers. Software subscriptions have contributed to the trend, coaxing people to pay continuously to use software instead opening their wallets only when a new version is released.
Chrome 100 also patches a range of security holes and refreshes the browser’s icon with simpler, brighter colors and a better stylistic fit with Android, iOS, MacOS, Chrome OS and Windows.
In addition, Google on Wednesday released Chrome OS 100, the Chrome variation that powers Chromebook laptops. It includes a new tool for launching apps and searching, a feature to create animated GIFs and expanded voice dictation abilities.