I code, therefore I am... nerdy

Version Numbers... Aren't They Supposed to Mean Something?

Software that’s been out for many years: v0.71. Google Chrome that’s been out for a short time: v12.0. What has happened to version numbers that meant something? They have become a way of trying to show market dominance, or a way from hiding from your users. Worse is the software that is so afraid of version 1.0 that they will increment so slowly that we don’t know if it’s worth upgrading. Looking at a version number for a piece of software no longer tells me anything.

Many of you will argue that version numbers never had any true meaning. This may be true for many commercial applications. A large version number shows that you’ve been around for a while, and it’s a great way of deceiving without anyone really noticing. Minor version numbers were just incrementers no matter how large or small of a change.

I was bitten by this recently at my job. We are still stuck on ruby 1.8.6, however we are looking to upgrade to 1.8.7. One of the great benefits of ruby and rails is gems and bundler. A gemfile stores the names and versions of all the required ruby gems in your project. Even better, you can specify a versioning system for each gem to automatically update when asked. This is great, if the gems stay with versioning standards.

However, one gem did not follow any standards and released a maintenance release that no longer supported ruby 1.8.6. Since we only locked down our gem to the second decimal point, this came down the pipeline to our development machines causing all sorts of new errors in our tests.

The response from the developer was “I told you 1.8.6 was deprecated.” Yes, but we expect deprecation warnings to affect us on the next fairly major release. This was a breaking change, however the version number did not denote this. I wish I had the time to read the release notes of every gem, but this is just not possible. I made an assumption based on the version number and was bitten by it. You may say that this is my fault for allowing the update, and you would be right. It’s something that I will not repeat in the foreseeable future. However, based on my own Googling of the error message, I obviously wasn’t the only person that ran into this problem.

Keeping up with the Joneses

Remember Java 1.2? I do, and it wasn’t all that long ago. How about 1.3, 1.4? Do you remember Java 3 or 4, though? No you don’t. That’s because they never existed. Java 1.5 was labelled “Java 5” and Sun (now Oracle) never looked back. This was back when .NET was version 2.0 already making Java seem like old news. The name, “Java 5” sure looks more appealing against .NET 2.0/3.5/4.0. Sun also did this with Solaris jumping from v2.x to v8. Marketing material magically removed any reference to their old versioning scheme.

This is not limited to Sun, however. Winamp jumped from v3 to v5 because, as their marketing states, it was a combination of v2 and v3. Since v2 + v3 = v5, this is what they decided on. AOL seemed to release a new major version every few weeks. Netscape skipped versions 5 and 6 to catch up to Internet Explorer. Many times these major version releases hardly warranted these numbering changes. This is what happens when marketing is allowed to take over version numbers.

It will never be truly finished

This is the exact opposite problem that plagues many open source projects. Open source projects are afraid of the v1.0 stigma; that the program needs to be stable. Instead they will release v0.19.37a (okay, a little facetious). This makes it more difficult to believe that this software is ready for production, but nonetheless, it is.

As a reborn programmer into the Ruby on Rails realm, I have been shocked at the number of gems used in production that are no where near v1.0. It’s not that they aren’t production ready. On the contrary, many of these gems are rock solid. It just feel a bit weary when it looks like the authors don’t believe it’s v1.0 worthy.

One response to this is that the developers feel that it’s never truly finished. MAME is one to use this excuse going as far as going from v0.99 to v0.100. What these projects fail to realize is that there is life after v1.0. There’s actually v2.0, v3.0, and so on. Heck there is an infinite amount of version numbers just waiting to be taken. If anyone needs some, I have some extra version numbers lying around that I’m willing to give out for free.

What I believe in

I’m sure it’s difficult to listen to someone standing on his soap box decreeing what people should or should not do with their version number, especially when there does not seem to a hard and fast rule for version numbers. Instead, what you should do is read more on version numbers and what prior, successful projects have done. I just give one way of doing this that makes sense to me.

I believe in the [major].[minor].[maintenance] versioning system.

Major is for major changes in the software. This can even include enough changes to warrant a paid upgrade. When I see a major version change, I expect and understand breaking changes. I also expect new features, not just bug fixes.

Minor is for minor updates. These may be small feature additions, major bug fixes, etc. This can include some breaking changes, but fairly minor. I should be able to look at the release and fix whatever breaks within a few hours.

Maintenance is for just that, maintenance builds. This should absolutely not include any breaking changes. It also should not have any new features. This is just bug fixes. Leave it at that.

Another example of a good versioning scheme is Ubuntu’s month.year.point versioning. I know right off the bat that 11.04 is the latest major version and that significant changes have occurred since 10.10. Although this does contradict my version inflation talk above, it is a well known versioning method for Ubuntu users and very consisten. It’s not just marketing telling developers that we need to skip a few versions to catch up to our competitors.

Following a standard will always make things easier for your users. It doesn’t have to be the major, minor, maintenance style that I show above, but stick to a versioning scheme that fits for your project and users.