When the Document Foundation announced its release policy, few people besides IT professionals understood why we were telling people about two distinct stable branches for LibreOffice. The truth is, not only do many FOSS projects share this kind of release policy, but software vendors producing proprietary software often have very much the same kind of release structure. At the beginning of the LibreOffice project, you had to pay attention to which branch each new release was belonging to. It wasn’t unclear as you could look it up on our wiki, but it wasn’t something that could be found right away for anyone in a hurry or lacking enough self-confidence to search for the right information in the right place.
The Marketing Team at that time came up with the idea to add to the existing numbering schemes a name or an attribute so that each branch would be immediately identified. We first came up with “Stable” and “Fresh”, then we arrived to our present situation with “Still” and “Fresh”. It may be useful to add that besides these the stable releases of each of these two branches, there are release candidates for each releases, as well as betas and nightly builds for anyone to grab, run and test.
LibreOffice started with the 3.3 release; it then added micro releases with a third number next to the first two digits. As time went forward, so did the releases: 3.4.0, 3.4.1, 3.5.0, 3.5.1, onwards to the 3.6 branch, the last one to carry the number 3 as its major release number, and to the 4.0 and the 4.x.x based releases. This summer we will be releasing the 5.0, and you will hear a lot more about the changes and improvements that are being put into it. But when you think about it, we started our version numbering exactly based on the one of OpenOffice.org . In 2010, it meant something technically and something for the community and more broadly the users of OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice. Fast forward to 2015: does anybody really know what a “4.3” release mean? What message does this numbering scheme convey?
It may be time to consider other numbering schemes, keeping in mind that these wouldn’t affect either the name of each branch, nor would it change anything to the actual release policy. But what scheme? Do wo use the year and the month? Do we start off with a completely new set of numbers with a coherent meaning? Do we blend the year and a series (like Ubuntu)? Or do we make it very simple to the point of being confusingly simple and only use one number that would change with each release (like Fedora) ?
Numbering schemes may seem utterly useless especially when the two branches of LibreOffice tend to be advertised even more than the version numbers. But let’s not forget that these numbers describe a technical reality, not just a chronological one. The 4.3.7 comes last in the 4.3 series; it is also the one that has received the most patches in these series; its younger counterpart, currently in Fresh branch, is the 4.4.2 offer just the same level of bugfixes and patches, but has other, more recent improvements and features the 4.3.7 simply do not offer.
This question is not a petty one; it is rather important, but should also convey meaning for as many people as possible. This is only the beginning of the discussion; and I know neither its outcome nor its end. Be it as it may, it is going to be at the same time probably exhausting and exciting at the same time: in these matters, it is hard to be completely right or wrong.
photo by Andy Maguire, “Numbers”.