The Death of Version Numbers

The Death of Version Numbers

The recently revived Microsoft Exchange Conference (MEC) is underway this week, offering IT pros their first in-depth look at the next version of the software giant’s messaging and communications server and a chance to interact with the Microsoft engineers responsible for the product. Poring over Microsoft’s press materials for the event, however, I’m struck by only one thing: Despite the fact that the new version of Exchange Server is in fact called Exchange Server 2013, Microsoft studiously ignores that term. Instead, the company refers to it only as “the new Exchange.”

This, folks, is a new trend, and not just at Microsoft.

This isn’t the first time Microsoft has used this new language. Office 2013, which previously went by the codename Office 15, is now referred to as “the new Office” as well, a fact that was driven home when I was repeatedly warned not to lapse and use the term “2013” during my mentions of it at TechEd New Zealand 2012 earlier this month.

Microsoft again appears to be following in the footsteps of Apple; like Apple, Microsoft is using the new product naming convention irregularly, at least so far: Apple’s iPad 3 is called “the all-new iPad,” although the most recent iPhone was curiously branded with the more pedestrian iPhone 5 moniker. Why the inconsistency? I can’t say. But I’m a bit more concerned about what we’re going to call the next iPad. The all-really-new, this-time-we-mean it iPad? It boggles the mind.

(On a side note, dropping version numbers actually makes a bit more sense for software than it does for hardware, because it’s easy enough to fix and add software features. But the lousy iPad 3 camera isn’t going to be fixed with software. That upgrade will require a hardware replacement, which will arrive in a new version of the device itself.)

Microsoft has been screwing around with version numbers for decades now, of course. It morphed most of its mainstream products away from version numbers and to year numbers starting with Windows 95. But I’ve never liked that scheme, because year numbers are like the expiration date on milk: First they expire, and then they begin to ripen and smell bad. If you’re running Office 2003, you’re obviously almost a decade out of date. But if you’re running Office 11.0, who can say?

Of course, that’s just marketing. From the perspective of an IT admin who needs to manage these products, Office 2007 is obviously newer than Office 2003, just as Office 12.0 would be newer than Office 11.0. But “the new Office”? What the heck is that?

You might never need to deal with this problem. Microsoft’s new naming scheme is actually based, I think, on the company’s move to online services, where products such as Windows Intune and Office 365 have always come sans version numbering because it’s Microsoft, not you, that needs to manage these services behind the scenes. The organizations that adopt these services know that they’ll be updated with both new features and bug fixes over time, and that they’ll be moved forward to these new “versions” automatically as part of an ongoing subscription.

And that’s the crux of what’s happening here. With Office 2013, yes, Microsoft will sell you traditional versions of the software, just as it will sell you traditional, on-premises versions of Exchange 2013. But what Microsoft really wants to sell you is the subscription and services-based versions of these products. And in such cases, version numbers suddenly are a lot less meaningful. Over time, maybe the versions with version numbers just . . . disappear.

I think we’re going to see this happen with Windows and other core Microsoft products going forward as well. Windows 8, for example, won’t sit still for three years until Windows 9 hits, I’m told, but will instead be updated regularly. In fact, I think this will occur as it will with Visual Studio 2012, and we can expect a “Windows 8 Update 1” release by mid-2013 at the latest. It will be like Windows 8, just a new version of it.

Windows 8’s ARM-based stable mate, Windows RT, has already made this leap. This product isn’t called Windows RT 8, or Windows 8 RT. IT’s just Windows RT. And I bet the next “version” of this product will simply be called . . . wait for it . . . Windows RT. It’s a new product for a new day. And it’s going to be branded accordingly.

Microsoft, of course, can’t help being inconsistent. (Witness the Visual Studio 2012 mention above for an obvious example.) But I think you can chart the success of Microsoft’s move away from traditionally delivered software solutions and toward a largely online services makeup by how rapidly this type of naming scheme consumes the old ways of doing things. “The new Visual Studio”? It’s only a matter of time. And I wonder how much developers would pay yearly for such a product?

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