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Do version numbers mean anything?


Every time I launch Firefox recently, I have gotten a popup telling me to upgrade to Firefox 5 from my current 4.01 version. The supported lifetime of 4.x was four months, and this appears to be a full number upgrade.

But is it really? No it is not. In general, the software industry used to consider integer upgrades (from 1 to 2 to 3 etc.) to be major upgrades with significant new features, many bug fixes, possibly significant interface changes, and so on. The next type of number release was a dot release (such as 3.0 to 3.1). This type of release had a few new features (unless it had been a long time from the last release in which case there might be a number of new features) and some bug fixes. The last type of release was a dot dot release (such as 3.1 to 3.1.1). This was usually minor bug fixes, or possibly a quick fix to a major bug that had just been found.

It sure looks like the software people have given up on giving the user any clue as to what is in a release. What is this all about?! I suspect that it is a bit of laziness and also a way to simplify release schedules. When I was managing software products, we used to decide on features we wanted to include in a particular release, and the list of bugs we wanted to get fixed. The release date would likely move, but the release definition was fairly clear. Toward the end of my time, we started to move to setting a hard release date, and whatever was ready to go got in that release. Mozilla calls this a "rapid release development cycle", and they claim "more than 1000 improvements and performance enhancements". I checked their features/bug list. I get 11 minor feature improvements/changes and 992 bug fixes. So by old standards, I suppose you could be really generous and call this a dot release. Sure as heck not a number release.

This type of release is becoming common, and I wish we would get some sort of definition from the software vendors as to what the numbers mean. Software (at least commercial software with a price tag) is usually upgraded to generate revenue, so you really do expect value for your money. I know Firefox is free software, but please, give me a clue as to what to expect, not just marketing hyperbole "new and improved"!

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