Last week, Linus Torvalds posted a poll on Google+ asking people if the Linux kernel should continue with 3.x release numbers or if it was time for 4.0. I seem to recall Linus saying something to the effect of “it’s just a number” when Linux finally went from 2.6 to 3.0. Of course, it’s not just a number. Versions convey some kind of meaning, although the meaning isn’t always clear.
In general, I’m a fan of following the Semantic Versioning specification. In the projects I work on, both personally and professionally, I use something close to Semantic Versioning. I actually commented to coworkers the other day that I thought we had really screwed up on some product version numbers for not incrementing the major version when we made breaking changes.
But that’s the limitation of Semantic Versioning, too. Some projects do an excellent job of maintaining compatibility (for example, you can use some pretty old HTCondor versions with the new hotness and things generally work). Do they stick with the same major version forever and end up with very large minor versions? At some point, then, the major version becomes pretty useless.
A colleague remarked that in some cases, the patch number has become almost irrelevant. Back when even the smallest of releases meant mailing flopping disks or waiting an eternity for an FTP download, even patch releases where a big deal. In the modern era of broadband and web-based applications, version numbers themselves start to mean a lot less. If your browser auto-updates, do you even care what the version number is? Does anyone (including Facebook developers) know what version of Facebook you’re using?
Of course, not everything is auto-updating and even fewer things are web or mobile applications. Version numbers will be important in certain areas for the foreseeable future. It’s clear that no versioning scheme will be universally applicable. What’s important is that developers have a versioning scheme, that it’s made clear to users and downstream developers, and that they stick to it. That way, the version numbers mean something.