Version Numbers: Still Mattering


Firefox 12 was released last week.

One of the main features the release sports is “totally silent updates,” following Chrome’s path of “web-based version numbers”1 and going out of the way to obscure this information.

It will be interesting to see how this plays itself out.

Firefox 10 took us into the land of “always compatible” extensions2. Now with the obscuration of the act of versions changing, I wonder if the end-user’s experience will start to tend towards a more randomly-broken web browser, and users being confused why the extensions they were using yesterday are suddenly just-not-working today.

These are problems Chrome seemingly never faced, because they don’t have the rich ecosystem of addons that Mozilla does. This isn’t a particularly insightful revelation and I’ve even discussed it previously. I guess I’m still talking about it because I’ve never understood why Mozilla Corporation did it, beyond “because Chrome did it3.”

In any event, I recently got thinking about versioning again because of a conversation I had with a friend last week about version numbers and mobile.

We were chatting about our phones, and I mentioned I recently upgraded to iOS 5.1, having waited a bit to see how the update shook out on my friend’s iDevices.

He replied he’d been waiting for his carrier to roll out updates to “Ice Cream Sandwich.” I asked my friend—a college-level computer science instructor with a master’s degree in the subject—what version that was, and how it was different from… the previous version.

He answered “Oh… I don’t know. 2.3? 2.4?”

(It’s 4.0.x, actually.)

Thinking back to the features I use that were changed and updated in iOS 5.1, I said “Oh. Well… what’s different in the new release? What are you looking forward to?”

“Oh… … I have no idea. It gets stuck less in your teeth than Honey4 and is more satisfying on a cool day?”

The whole conversation was yet another great illustration of the point: not only do version numbers continue to matter… they matter in a marketing context.

They make it easier for your users to talk about your product in meaningful ways.

Obviously, number schemes are easier to test for equality and ordering, but they also can communicate the magnitude of change: an update from iOS 4.x to 5 communicates at a very intuitive cognitive level that the change is bigger than an update from iOS 5.0 to 5.15

These are important aspects when users want to identify, discuss, compare, and contrast features, stability, bugs, and overall usefulness of the products they use and (hopefully!) love.

After it was clear that our conversation about his Android phone simply didn’t have the adjectives necessary to meaningfully discuss, we moved on.

But my confusion remains: I still don’t understand the push (in certain circles?) to make our users’ conversations more difficult than they need to be.

1 aka “no version numbers”
2 Even if, y’know, the extensions are actually totally unusable on the new version
3 I can hear my mother saying “If Chrome jumped off a bridge…”
4 I think he meant Honeycomb
5 Some may point out that these numbers have sometimes been contorted to serve a business end; it is true this happens all the time; that’s a problem that solves itself when customers get burned by it too much.