Call Me Dave

Call Me Dave

Article from Issue 175/2015

A new version of a Linux system used to come with lots of new features – new tools, new capabilities. Of course, the great Linux distros are still evolving, but they don't throw a lot of new stuff in with every version like they used to. The websites often promise "bug fixes" and "enhancements" of things that are already inside.

Dear Linux Pro Reader,

A new version of a Linux system used to come with lots of new features – new tools, new capabilities. Of course, the great Linux distros are still evolving, but they don't throw a lot of new stuff in with every version like they used to. The websites often promise "bug fixes" and "enhancements" of things that are already inside.

Has Linux slowed down? Maybe, but another factor is that many developers are changing their definition of what they consider a new release. What is a release anyway? We're so used to the system that we rarely stop to reflect on the idea that, at some periodic interval, a brass band plays a fanfare to announce that some developers are putting out a new version of something they were already doing.

Lots of the new numbers and new announcements are driven by corporations who want to make sales. Many of the press releases in my inbox are from software companies announcing new version numbers for their products. In many cases, the new version heralds a new occasion to make a sales pitch, but the naming of products follows no discernible rhythm or rule. Sometimes a new version doesn't really have much new stuff in it, and sometimes an old name persists for years and is continually reinvented to save the trouble of renaming.

The model names of old Apple computers were wholly insufficient to reveal how to fix them. You needed to consult a grid that plotted the model number versus specs like the processor speed and screen width to unlock the secret of which computer you actually owned. This system was incredibly cumbersome if you had to repair anything, but it was great for sales, because the company could keep on marketing the same product while continually changing it.

Microsoft has tried nearly every approach to version numbers and names. I have always wondered if the continual changes to their naming conventions reflect actual research, or if it is just that a new marketing VP shows up every few years and has to get busy with salary justification. They started out with classic odometer-style major.minor version numbering. But they soon found that the public didn't care about the major rollovers, and minor releases sometimes actually outsold major releases. Windows 3.1, for instance, was a major success, and Windows 3.0 was a dud. In fact, some suspected that customers didn't want to buy the first release in a new series, because they assumed it would be buggy, and were waiting for a later update. So they started numbering by the year. Windows 95 was another big hit, which they hoped to follow up with Windows 97, but unfortunately, Windows 97 took them too long to finish, so they had to rename it Windows 98. They then split the Windows threads, with the professional versions retaining the year names and the consumer editions adopting fanciful names like "XP" and "Vista," before switching back to integer-style versioning for Windows 7 and Windows 8. And all the while, the concept of the minor update was encapsulated in stealthy updates called service packs.

The Linux kernel team recently reached a milestone with the Linux 4.0 release. Or did they? In one sense, the change appeared totally arbitrary, with Linus announcing the need to move to a new number after the 3.19 release because he was "running out of fingers and toes." Buried in the announcement, though, was a bit of wisdom, with Linus brushing aside the argument that a major release should have major new features, "I'm personally so much happier with time-based releases than the bad old days when we had feature-based releases."

Another strange thing to meditate about is CentOS 7 (1503), which appears to be the CentOS clone of RHEL 7.1. The tea leaves say that, since Red Hat has taken over maintaining the CentOS RHEL clone, they have implemented a naming scheme that tracks the RHEL release number in a vague way but does not reveal the precise relationship.

OpenSUSE's recent merger of the Tumbleweed rolling release with the Factory codebase brings the concept of a rolling release into the foreground, though many Linux developers have advocated the rolling release format for years.

Release names and numbers won't go away anytime soon, but naming strategies will continue to change to reflect the needs of companies, the whims of developers, and the prerogatives of marketing managers. Don't try to figure it out. If you meet someone named Dave, you don't try to figure it out, right? You just call him Dave.

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