Microsoft, Google, and KDE Have Killed Version Numbers

I’m steamed at the fact that version numbers, and the words “alpha” and “beta” used to have meaning. Now, thanks to the intrepid efforts of Microsoft, Google, and now the KDE development team, they are practically meaningless.

I remember receiving advice early in my IT career: “Never buy any software whose version number ends with a zero.” Back in the early 90’s, this was sound advice. Point-oh releases were known to be buggy, unstable, slow, etc. Only the brave, desperate, or ignorant installed first release versions of software. The first company I remember bucking this trend was WordPerfect, who released WordPerfect 5.1 for Windows, even though it was the first Windows version for them.

Microsoft further degraded the meaning of version numbers when they released Microsoft Word for Windows 6.0. In truth, this was more like Word for Windows 3.0, but because the friendly folks at WordPerfect had released version 5.1, Microsoft had to one-up them, so their next version was 6.0, which sounded more mature than WordPerfect’s petty 5.1 offering.

Shortly thereafter, Microsoft announced that Windows 4.0, theretofore known as “Chicago,” would be known as “Windows 95.” According to an article I read in PC World at the time, a study conducted by Microsoft showed that their consumers could not tell what was newer when given choices of Windows 3.0, 3.1, 3.11 (for Workgroups), 3.5 (NT), 3.51, and 4.0. While this may say more about Microsoft’s consumers than their marketing department, it’s sad nonetheless. Sadder still that five years later, they dropped the 95, 98, and 2000 scheme and replaced them with the ever-so-meaningful Windows XP and Windows Me (Millenium Edition). Brilliant. So, average consumer, please tell me what is newer now: Windows Me, Windows XP, or Windows Vista? At least IBM, who probably had the most brain-dead marketing team ever, kept the 3.0 on OS/2 Warp.

Netscape Communications (remember them?) followed suit with Netscape Communicator and Navigator 6. Does anyone remember a Netscape 5?

Then Google entered the fray a few years ago, with their “Beta” software. Google News was Beta. Google Earth was Beta. Gmail, which is used by businesses and ISPs now to host their main form of communication, is still in freakin’ Beta! What does that mean? says “beta software” is

n : pre-release software that has received an alpha test but still has more bugs than a regular release; "beta software is usually available only to particular users who will test it"

Not anymore. Now “beta software” means “software.” Do you think most users of Gmail would be entrusting their mail to “pre-release software that… has more bugs…” and is “available… to… users who will test it?” I think not. For pity’s sake, Google, drop the “beta” tag from Gmail.

Finally, KDE. Yes, KDE 4.0 is out (4.0.1 as of this writing), and the KDE developers have issued contrary statements ranging from telling us to download it and check out the new features and don’t be afraid to try it out, to “it’s not for everyone” and “4.1 will be the release that everyone will want to use.” Wow. Talk about a mixed message. Which is it? Is it? Do I download it or not? Is it going to be stable, and feature-complete, or not? Will I regret installing it because it wasn’t ready, or not? Come on, KDE, make up your mind! I’ve heard several theories on why they did this, and most seem to agree that if they had called this release “KDE 3.99” or something to that effect, people wouldn’t download it. So let me get this straight: they’d rather have me download it, thinking it’s feature-complete and stable, and get ticked off because it doesn’t work? Brilliant.

Back in the day, we used to have a word for that kind of software. It was “beta.” But that was before Google killed it. Maybe we’ve just come full circle. After all, it is a “Point-oh.”

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