Is it time to stop numbering software releases?

numbersAdobe has recently has announced that it will stop selling boxed copies of its Creative Suite software. This comes as no surprise – they are trying to push customers into their subscription-based Creative Cloud service. With Creative Cloud, the subscriber can download any an all updates of the Creative Suite software as it becomes available. As I thought about that announcement, though, it got me wondering: how much longer will software companies number their products with years and or versions?

Apple stopped it with the iPad and has never numbered the iPods or computers. They also never numbered the iWork suite for iOS. iWork for the desktop has been stuck in iWork ’09 for years, but it is constantly getting updated. I would not be surprised if the next full iWork version drops the year altogether.

Microsoft Office is now available as Microsoft 365 and in subscription format. I would expect the 365 number to be around for a while and the software would just get periodic updates without a number change. I guess we could see Office 720 in the future, but is it really needed?

Are software version numbers even needed anymore?

If retailers are moving towards downloadable versions of the software, why can’t they just add new features to the current version without renaming it? Sure, a new version brings more money in the way of people who want the latest and greatest. However, with the subscription model, subscribers get the latest and greatest automatically. You might even say they get the updates for “free.”

I would even argue that Apple has a one time fee subscription model in the Mac App Store and the iOS App Store. Until a major new release of iWork comes this can’t be a definitive statement, but so far all you have to do to get the latest features of the iWork software is buy it once through the respective store. All updates have been free. This has been true with Apple’s iLife offerings too. Will this continue when a major update is called for? As I said, that remains to be seen.

One thing is for sure, if software products lost their versions there would be a lot of pressure off of developers to constantly be releasing new, huge versions. Instead, they can focus on adding features that can be added via updates as soon as they are ready. No more need for a big version release – just download the latest update. Both the Chrome and Firefox browsers have moved to this rapid release structure, and the result is users get new features and updates almost as soon as they are available.

The case for software versions

Of course, there are benefits to numbering. The biggest is compatibility issues when sharing files. When you are sending files to another person, they often need to have the correct software to open it. For example, if I send a Photoshop file to a person, I need to know what version of Photoshop they have. I can’t send them a Photoshop CS6 file if they only have CS3 on their computers. If Photoshop did not have a version, how would I know if the software would be compatible? I could ask the person if their version of Photoshop was released after a certain date, but that would just get too confusing.

Conclusion

For now, I suspect version numbers and years are here to stay. However, as more and more companies move to the subscription model or Apple’s model I believe there will be a day in the near future when you just send a Microsoft Office file to someone and it just works because everyone is running the newest updated version they got via automatic update.