A plea for sanity in software versioning

Developers should resist the temptation to inflate version numbers for marketing purposes, both for customers' sake and their own

Holy cow, when did it get so hard to make sense of software version numbers?

If you use Google's Chrome Web browser, you're probably using version 12 right now. If you've configured it for the bleeding-edge developer channel, you might be on version 14. By comparison, the Oracle database is on version 11, and it's been around since the 1970s. Chrome must be a pretty mature product, right?

Not really. The first, early-preview release of Chrome shipped in September 2008. That makes 12 major-version releases in less than three years.

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This is, of course, absolutely ludicrous. Everybody knows what a major-version release means. Some joker even coined the adjective "2.0," as in "Web 2.0" or "scrambled eggs 2.0," meaning a brand-new version of something that's so different from the old version that you're going to have to learn how to do it all over again. Chrome's so-called major versions hardly count.

But it's easy to guess why a company would do this. Consumers always want the latest and greatest. Give them a new version number and they'll all rush to get the new features. Software that stays at the same version for too long looks old and outdated.

Chrome has been so successful with its numbering scheme, in fact, that its competition decided to get in on the act. In March, the Mozilla Foundation announced that it would begin releasing a new version of Firefox every 16 weeks, instead of once a year as it had been doing.

So far it's been better than its word. Firefox 4 came out on March 22, 2011. Firefox 5 shipped June 11 -- just 13 weeks later. Meanwhile, in the opposing camp, Chrome 6 and 7 weren't even two months apart.

Can customers even keep up with release cycles that fast? It all sounds like nonsense.

An embarrassment of Firefox versions
Firefox's version numbering is particularly frustrating because the Mozilla Foundation seems to have abandoned all rhyme and reason. By most accounts, Firefox 5 is little more than Firefox 4 with fog lamps and a cupholder. But the Mozilla developers haven't been lazy; a memory sandbox feature that runs plug-ins in a separate process, so that when plug-ins crash they don't take down your whole browser session, was added in Firefox 3.6.4. Who says minor-version releases don't count?

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