Release schedules and version numbers

I just finished a major rewrite and overhaul of my long-term research project and pushed it out to other students who are working with me on it. In the process of the redo I rewrote large parts of it to be simpler code and added a few important features. I also cleaned up the code organization (everything is neatly divided into directories instead being spread throughout the toplevel), added comments and rewrote the documentation to actually described what the program did and how to use it. But it wasn’t just a pure rewrite and refactoring. I added at least one important new feature, added a completely new user interaction mode and changed the code architecture to explicitly support multiple interfaces. But the thing is that even though I’ve “shipped” it, it’s still not quite done.

There are significant parts missing. The unit testing is very, very scant. There is almost no error handling. The previous version had a GUI which I need to port to the new API/architecture. I also want to write one more interaction mode as a proof of concept that it can support multiple, different modes. The documentation needs to be converted to HTML mode and there are some utility functions that would be helpful to have. In short, there’s a lot that needs to be done. So my question is, what version of my code is this?

I started a rewrite of this last  summer as well but never finished — a casualty classic second system effect. For a while I considered calling this version 3.0 counting the unfinished copy as 2.0. But I decided it was rather silly and so I’ve actually called it 2.0. Though it’s certainly a major major change from the last version, in some ways it’s still broken and unfinished. Is it a beta? Or a release candidate? I suppose that’s a better description. Except the additions that I want to make are more than moving it from a beta to a full release. The GUI would definitely be a point release.

In many ways the debate is purely academic and kinda pointless. As I’ve written before, software is always beta. However, releasing major and minor “versions” of software is a popular activity. In some ways it’s helpful to the user. You can tell when something’s changed significantly and when you need to upgrade. In an age where you had to physically sell software, that was a good thing to know. However, the rise of web-based software has changed that to a large extent. If you’ve been using Gmail for a while, you’ll know that it has a history of small, regular atomic improvements over time. And it’s not just Gmail, it’s most of Google’s online services. Sometimes there are major facelifts (like Google Reader a few years ago) but by and large this gradual improvement works well. Google Chrome also uses this model. Chrome is officially past version 5 now. But thanks to its built in auto update mechanism you don’t need to care (and I suspect most people don’t). Rolling releases are clearly acceptable and may just be the way software updates are going to go in the future. Of course, if you’re charging for your code you’re going to have some sort of paywall, so no, manual software updates probably won’t go away forever.

Coming back to my original question, what version did I just release? 2.0? 2.0 beta 1? 1.9.5? Honestly I don’t really care. Part of my disinterest stems from the fact that Git makes branching and merging so easy. It’s hard to care about version numbers and releases when your code is in the hands of a system that makes it so easy to spin off feature branches and then merge them back in when they’re ready. If I worked in a fully Git based team I’d just have everyone running daily merges so that everyone just automatically got the new features. In that case I wouldn’t have waited to release. The big new feature would have been pushed a week ago, the reorganization and cleanup after that and then the documentation yesterday. I’d also be sending out the later updates and addition one at a time once they were done. Everyone else uses SVN, there might still be a way to do it.

In conclusion: rolling releases are awesome. Users don’t have to worry about manually updating and automagically get new features when they’re available. Developers using a good version control system can be up-to-date with everyone else’s code. This is especially important if you’re writing developer tools (which I am): the faster and easier you can get your updates to the people making the end product the faster the end product gets developed.

PS. If you’re wondering what exactly it is I’m making, more on that later. There’s a possibility of a source release after I talk to my professor about it.

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