The Amazing World of Version Numbers

They exaggerate. They fudge. They confuse. And sometimes they're not even numbers.

By  |  Tuesday, July 14, 2009 at 2:17 am

The Amazing World of Version NumbersIn theory, software version numbers should be about as scintillating as as serial numbers, house numbers, channel numbers, or Vehicle Identification Numbers. You don’t get much more mundane than the practice of keeping track of a software package’s major and minor editions by assigning decimal numbers to them.

Except…version numbers long ago stopped being version numbers. Software companies started using them as marketing weapons. They tried varying methods of assigning identities to applications, such as naming them after years. They decided that numbers were too dry and substituted letters and words that were meant to be more evocative. I’m not embarrassed to admit I find ’em interesting enough to write this article.

I cheerfully admit to using the broadest possible definition of version number in this story–hey, I’m going to discuss names that don’t involve numbers at all. I know that developers still use more formal, traditional software versioning naming conventions behind the scenes. (Windows Vista, for instance, is officially version 6.0 of Windows; Technologizer is on version 20593, but don’t ask me to explain why.)

For no particular reason, I’m going to write this as a FAQ. Even though there’s an awful lot about this topic which I just don’t know…

When did version numbers come into use?

I wish I could tell you–actually, I’m hoping that someone reading this will be able to. I do know that the FORTRAN II programming language came along in 1958, so software developers having been using numbers to keep track of software versions for more than half a century. By the early 1970s, Unix’s developers were keeping track of its evolution using “edition” numbers–second edition, third edition, and so on–which referred to the revisions to the Unix manual.

I’m not sure if there was a period when version numbers weren’t widely used for personal computer software, but if so, it wasn’t long. When I got into computers in 1978, standard version numbers and point releases (such as Radio Shack’s famously unusable TRS-DOS 2.1) were already part of the culture.

What’s the highest version number ever?

Broderbund Print Shop

I’m sure that someone will top this within moments of the time I click “Publish” to push this story onto the site, but the highest version number I know of belongs to Broderbund’s The Print Shop 23, a product which (A) has been around for 27 years; (B) has received almost-yearly updates; and (C) uses a traditional version number instead of a year or other identifier.

The modern version of the Broderbund company seems to specialize in elder-statesman software: It also publishes PrintMaster Platinum 18, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing 20, and Calendar Creator 12. It also offers something called ClickArt 1.2 Million, but in that case I’m pretty sure that the number doesn’t refer to the version.

Honorable runner-up to The Print Shop for highest version number: the legendary text editor Emacs, which has reached version 22.3.

What’s the greatest version number ever?

That’s easy–at least if you ask me. It’s 5.1. Which is, of course, the version number of WordPerfect 5.1–a DOS word processor so famous, respected, and durable that it’s identifiable by its version number alone two decades after it first appeared…and people still want to use it. I don’t know of a single person who remembers it who considers it to have anything but extremely positive connotations. (WordPerfect acknowledged it was a magical number by releasing a Windows version of WordPerfect 5.1, too–even though it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to apply a point-release version number from a product for one platform to a version for another.)

Runner up for best version number: 3.11. As in 1993’s Windows for Workgroups 3,11, one of the best versions of any operating system ever released. (I’m convinced that it’s the supposedly minor versions of Windows that are the most significant–any edition with anything after the decimal point shows that it benefited from bug fixes.) The 3.11 in WfW 3.11 must be the most famous two-decimal-place version number ever–and yes, I miss the era when Microsoft (or any software company) would put mighty marketing muscle behind version 3.11 of anything .

Did Windows 95 start the idea of using years instead of version numbers?

Illustrator 88Nope–it’s a far older conceit than that. The earliest example I’m aware of is Fortran 66–no relation that I know of to Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66–an update to what was even then a venerable programming language. One of the first operating systems I ever used was an alternative TRS-80 OS called NewDOS/80. Adobe released Illustrator 88. (There was a WordStar 2000, but it probably doesn’t count–it was released in 1985, and presumably intended to sound futuristic.)

Still, Windows 95 remains the most famous product with a year in its name, and it started a trend which continues to this day, But it fell victim to multiple delays that left it being released on August 24th, 1995, well over halfway through the year. With the exception of tax packages–whose version names refer to the tax year in question–I can’t imagine anyone releasing a product today named after a year that’s already winding down. In fact, I’m surprised that Microsoft didn’t rename the OS as Windows 96 before shipping it.

For obvious reasons, the industry seems to have settled on using years only for products that are updated annually or nearly so. I acknowledge that year-based names helpfully tell you roughly when a product was released–but they still make me think of Airport 1975.

(Illustrator 88 box borrowed from Publicious.)

What was with the name Windows XP?

Back in 2001, Microsoft said the XP stood for “Experience,” and that it symbolized “the rich and extended user experiences Windows and Office can offer by embracing Web services that span a broad range of devices.” Pretty awe-inspiring! I’m not privy to the discussions that led to the moniker, but I suspect that the company thought that both traditional version numbers and years felt dry and stale. Maybe it was motivated by some of the same thinking that led Intel to replace a processor called the 80486 with one known as the Pentium.

The XP name proved only moderately influential. In 2002, Macromedia released a product called Studio MX, which was replaced by a product with the belt-and-suspenders name Studio MX 2004. AMD released the Athlon XP CPU, which struck me as a naming faux pas at the time, since it suggested a link with Windows XP that didn’t exist sounded like AMD was saying the chip wasn’t a good fit for other OSes.  And today, Adobe offers [a product which many people, including me, mistakenly believe is called] Creative Suite CS4 (the “CS” stands for “Creative Suite” and is therefore wholly unneccessary).

My only objection to names like Windows XP is that they don’t give you a clue about a product’s relation to its predecessors and descendants. In the last eleven years, Microsoft has released Windows 98, Windows 2000, Windows Me, Windows XP, and Windows Vista, and is about to ship Windows 7. Thousands of years from now, technology historians are going to have trouble figuring out what was released when, and may even believe that Windows 98 was the ninety-first release following Windows 7.

Speaking of Vista, what was up with that name?

As with Windows XP, Microsoft went for a version identifier that was meant to evoke an emotional response rather than keep track of its relationship to previous versions. The “Vista” in “Windows Vista” meant to convey that the OS was “Clear, Confident, Connected,” Microsoft explained.

Setting aside the question of whether Vista was clear, confident, and connected, the name is as far as Microsoft or anyone else has gotten from old-style version identifiers. It’s more Pepsi Jazz than Coke Zero, and I’m not so sure that its expansive-but-elusive quality wasn’t a minor contributing factor to Vista’s poor reputation.

And Windows 7?

Well, in principle, giving a software product a version number that really is a version number isn’t a big decision–it’s just a statement of fact. But considering that Windows 7 is the first version of Windows with a straightforward version number since Windows NT 4.0 back in 1996, the moniker is a meaningful statement of some sort. I’m not sure if Microsoft has articulated publicly why it chose to drop the non-number naming convention it used for Windows XP and Vista, but the obvious explanation would be that it’s trying to position Win 7 as a low-key, high-value OS that delivers more than it promises–a sort of anti-Vista. The lucky connotations of the number 7 probably don’t hurt either.

Also, “Windows Vista II” wouldn’t have made anybody happy.

Remind me again how Microsoft determined that Windows 7 is the seventh version of Windows? I can’t get the math to work.

According to Microsoft’s accounting, these have been the major versions of Windows:

Windows 1.0
Windows 2.0
Windows 3.0
Windows 95, 98, SE, and Me–all of which count as Windows 4.0
Windows 2000–which was Windows 5.0
Windows Vista–which was Windows 6.0
Windows 7.0

That sounds pretty darn arbitrary–I mean, it doesn’t consider Windows XP to have been a major version of Windows.

Tell me about it. Did I mention that the official version number of Windows 7 is…Windows 6.1?

Windows 6.1

Enough about Windows already. Any thoughts about Apple’s OS X?

OS XIts numbering is remarkably conservative, and I’m not sure why. OS X 10.0 (the successor to System 9, but based on NeXTStep) came out in 2001, and in the eight years since, the OS has only wriggled its way up to OS X 10.5. (Version 10.6 is due in September.) It’s true that Apple releases fairly frequent upgrades with healthy-but-not-overwhelming quantities of new features, but just about any other software company on the planet would have gotten to version 14 or so by now. It leaves me wondering what, if anything, would get Apple to roll over the version number to 11–and, if it did, whether it would call the product OS X 11.0 or OS XI 11.0.

Of course, most Mac fans refer to OS X iterations not by version numbers but by their cat-themed codenames–OS X 10.5 is Leopard, and OS X 10.6 will be Snow Leopard. Apple started making the codenames into official monikers for the shipping versions in 2002 with OS X 10.2, also known as Jaguar. It’s an interesting approach, but the company is running out of wild cats to name versions after. I’m not sure if it’ll ever release a Cougar (it may not like the alternative definition) or Lion (which may sound too much like Lyin’). But OS X Lynx still seems like a good possibility, and I’m personally rooting for OS X Ocelot.

OS X is also noteworthy for turning the version number into the very name of the product. I’m not sure if anyone’s done that before.

Are there other examples of conservatism in version numbering?

Open-source projects, more often than not, are admirably restrained–maybe because they’re not under the same marketing pressures as commercial software. The Linux kernel has been around for nineteen years and has only reached version; the HandBrake video transcoder is at version 0.9.3 after more than six years.

On the other hand, I’m still confused by the way the same basic office suite is marketed both as StarOffice 9.0 and 3.1. And Google’s Chrome browser is an open-source project, but a mere five months after version 1.0 left beta, the company released a version 2.0 that other developers might have called a 1.1 or 1.5.

Is there a funniest version number of all time?

Yes. Or at least a funniest numbering system. The one used by Donald Knuth’s TeX typesetting language. To quote Wikipedia:

Since version 3, TeX has used an idiosyncratic version numbering system, where updates have been indicated by adding an extra digit at the end of the decimal, so that the version number asymptotically approaches π. This is a reflection of the fact that TeX is now very stable, and only minor updates are anticipated. The current version of TeX is 3.1415926; it was last updated in March 2008. The design was frozen after version 3.0, and no new feature or fundamental change will be added, so all newer versions will contain only bug fixes. Even though Donald Knuth himself has suggested a few areas in which TeX could have been improved, he indicated that he firmly believes that having an unchanged system that will produce the same output now and in the future is more important than introducing new features. For this reason, he has stated that the “absolutely final change (to be made after my death)” will be to change the version number to π, at which point all remaining bugs will become features.

That’s nerd humor, I know, but version numbers are inherently nerdy, so it’s only appropriate.

Is it bad luck for a product to reach release number 13?

CorelDraw X3I’m not sure if we know–has anyone ever been brave enough to sell a version 13 of anything? Relatively few applications have reached version 12 and therefore been faced with the question of what to call the next upgrade. Microsoft’s code-name for what became Office 2007 was Office 12; it didn’t startle anyone in the least when the code-name for the next version was Office 14.

Corel has come closer to honesty here than any other company I know–it called the thirteenth editions of CorelDraw and WordPerfect “X3,” for 10+3, then continued the approach with CorelDraw X4 and WordPerfect X4. May both products flourish long enough that Corel has to figure out what to call the 666th versions.

Are any other version numbers bad luck?

Windows MeYes. The sluggish and buggy Windows Millennium Edition (aka Windows Me) turned out to be the least-loved version of Microsoft’s OS. (At least until Vista came along–although Vista has defenders and WinMe, as far as I know, doesn’t.) And Lotus SmartSuite Millennium Edition turned out to be the last real upgrade to a venerable product. (IBM still sells it as SmartSuite 9.8, but is too embarrassed to call it Millennium Edition.) On the other hand, Windows 2000 and Microsoft Office 2000 didn’t seem to be jinxed. Lesson: The whole idea of the millennium being exciting got old quick–and the cuter the version number, the more dangerous.

Do version numbers lie?

Sure–or they’ve been known to stretch the truth, at least. For instance, back in 1993, Microsoft Word for Windows made a great leap forward from version 2.0 to 6.0–which conveniently put it at numeric parity with archrival WordPerfect 6.0. In 2002, Netscape went directly from 4.8 from 6.0–coincidentally matching archrival Internet Explorer 6.0. Digital Reaearch’s DOS clone DR-DOS premiered with version 3.41 (making it sound more advanced than MS-DOS 3.3) and skipped 4.0 because MS-DOS 4.0 was a flop.

In the hardware arena, Psion followed up its popular Series 3 PDA with the Series 5 palmtop–Psion was worried that Asian cultures consider the number 4 to be unlucky.

Will version numbers ever go away?

Not in terms of their use by software developers; it’s simply mandatory that programmers keep track of each version of an application, and there’s no rational way to do it except to assign each one a number. But as traditional software gives way to Web-based services that roll out new features continuously rather than in occasional outbursts, version numbers just aren’t what they used to be. I have no idea what to call the current version of Gmail, for instance.

So I’m guessing that version numbers will eventually go the way of dot-matrix printers–they’re too useful to face true extinction, but most of us will sort of forget they still exist. I’d love to be proven wrong, though. I may not be around in 2086, but I’d like to think that Broderbund will be–and that it’ll be releasing The Print Shop 100…


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109 Comments For This Post

  1. Dale Dietrich Says:

    As per Paul Thurrott, on his Windows Weekply podcast, Windows 7 is only numbered that way for marketing reasons. There have been more than a dozen versions of Windows. Indeed, Microsoft internally refers to Windows 7 as technically Windows 6.1. You can test it yourself on Windows 7 RC:


  2. Dale Houston Says:

    I thought the 4.0 version of Windows was Windows NT 4.0.

  3. Keith Higgs Says:

    There actually was a Netscape 5 development tree but – the Netscape 6 revision overtook it and it was scrapped.

  4. nhasian Says:

    wow you forgot a few more awesome examples. Like how Microsoft’s 2nd gen console was not called Xbox2, it was called Xbox360 because its major competitor sony was on their 3rd gen console the Playstation3. so 360 sounds better than 3 right?

    Also both with HP and Nvidia bigger version numbers dont always mean better. i remember years ago when HP released their 600 series of inkjet printers, they were more economical and werent as good as their 500 series printers. As for nvidia, their 200 series cards are more powerful than their 8000 series. its enough to make you pull your hair out.

  5. magusxxx Says:

    Interesting you should write an article like this shortly after the iPhone 3GS was released. My theory, which is completely off base, was that the GS stood for ‘graphics and sound’. Because that’s what they meant for the Apple IIGS. (Some of us even joked it stood for Granny Smith.)

  6. James Says:

    Regarding Adobe’s CS line of products, they rarely (if ever) refer to them as Creative Suite CS#. I have several boxed Adobe products sitting in front of me. For the suite products they’re all labeled like “ADOBE CREATIVE SUITE 4: DESIGN PREMIUM”. Individual products are labeled like “ADOBE PREMIERE PRO CS4”. I personally have never seen Adobe label anything as “CREATIVE SUITE CS4”.

  7. Val Says:

    In the article you mentioned:

    “… Maybe it was motivated by some of the same thinking that led Intel to replace a processor called the 80486 with one known as the Pentium.”

    What really lead to that was that numbers are not copyrightable/trademarkable, so Intel needed to name their products to be able to trademark them.

  8. nhasian Says:


  9. Jim Welch Says:

    Are any other version numbers bad luck?

    Yes. Version 3.0 was considered for a few years as BAD MOJO. Why? Windows 3.0, IIRC.

  10. furthermore Says:

    Pike’s done a great leap, too: From 0.6 to 7.0. After some 7 years of developers being really laid-back about increasing just the secondary digit, someone in marketing decided to just multiply by 10 to make the current version look more mature.

  11. Jim Welch Says:

    Funny you did not mention the flamewars about what version number to use with Linux kernel. Since they changed the system, so the front numbers will “never” change.

  12. Alan Says:

    Adobe doesn’t offer “Creative Suite CS4”, it offers “Creative Suite 4”.

    The components of “Creative Suite 4” are suffixed “CS4”, e.g. “Photoshop CS4”

  13. Spaceman-Spiff Says:

    Interesting article, it was a fun read.

    Your link on “Donald Knuth’s TeX typesetting language” on 2nd page is incorrect.

  14. Darkmoon Firelyte Says:

    A good one to remember is Winamp, which went from 2.0 (arguably the best version), to 3.0 (which some detest greatly), to 5.0 — which was intended to combine the best aspects of 2.0 and 3.0.

    2 + 3 = 5

  15. Stephen Says:

    Actually, The XP that AMD tacked onto the Athlon XP line did allude to Windows XP. AMD and Microsoft teamed up for a bit to design the Athlon XP line to work well with Windows XP. Thus, adding XP to the model name.

  16. leine Says:

    I have Algol 60 as an example which is earlier than Fortran 66.

  17. Freddie Says:

    What’s the highest version number ever?

    Highest one I know is for xterm, which is currently 243.

  18. Jay Says:

    The whole article could of been done just on Java versioning…..

  19. Stephen Peters Says:

    I suspect that NewDOS/80 was referring to the TRS-80 that it ran on, not the year. The TRS-80, in turn, came out in ’77 — the “80” there likely is referring to the Zilog Z80 processor it used.

  20. Dan Says:

    No mention of Java? Version 1.2 was marketed as “Java 2”, and justifiably so, since it was a major revision. 1.3 and 1.4 were also “Java 2”. 1.5 was marketed as “Java 5”, but should have really been called “Java 3” since it was the first major revision after Java 2. Makes me wonder if the real version number will ever exceed 1.x.

    (all the 1.x releases could be called major, but 1.2 and 1.5 were really huge)

  21. John Doe Says:

    You started the article with Broderbund, which I found ironic since they’re one of the worst about versioning. When I started working at Broderbund in 1999, PrintShop 6 was the newest version. When I left in 2001, they were at PrintShop 12. 6 version updates in 2 years. And don’t tell anyone, bt there were only minor differences between versions 10, 11, and 12 (such as different images, new graphics, etc. There were NO changes in the functions of the program).

  22. lucjon Says:

    I think that should win the “highest ver. number” argunent! v429 indeed.

  23. Jim Welch Says:

    Solar’s Versioning Style Guide

  24. Jon Says:

    There was a version 13 of AutoCAD, and it turned out to be very, very unlucky for Autodesk. It was actually called AutoCAD R13 (R for Release) and it was abysmal! Each there were four “updates” that followed, each one designated with the letter “c”. Each update promised to “fix” the program so that it didn’t crash every 5 minutes, but it never delivered. AutoCAD R13c4 was supposed to be “AutoCAD 13 with the bugs fixed” but it fell short of that, leaving users with the most unstable AutoCAD version to date. To recoup all of the lost good will, the next version, AutoCAD 14 marketed as being focused on stability. Just to make their point, there was only one update and it was called 14.01. The current version is 18.0, but it goes by the name AutoCAD 2010.

  25. The Amigo Says:

    Highest version number I’ve used: hijack on a empeg. It’s currently at v508.

  26. Ziggy Says:

    Regarding Psion jumping from the series 3 to the series 5 because of 4 being an extremely unlucky number in some cultures. I have also read that Palm, Inc did the same thing. There was the Palm III, IIIx, and IIIc. Then they jumped to the Palm V series. There was no Palm IV.

    And regarding the confusion of Microsoft version numbers… If you go by the version numbers that Microsoft uses, then Windows 7 becomes the oddball. Windows 1/2/3 were separate. ‘Windows 4’ versions are 95, 98, ME, and NT. ‘Windows 5’ versions are 2000, 2003, and XP. ‘Windows 6’ versions are 2008, Vista, and 7. With Vista being 6.0.xxxx and 7 being 6.1.xxxx. From using RC7, it’s definitely an evolutionary product over Vista. It’s much improved, but not really a full version leap as 98->XP or XP->Vista was.

  27. Steve Bjorg Says:

    Also, some open source products, such as Ubuntu and MindTouch, have adopted a sensible versioning scheme where the major number is the release year and the minor number the release month. Thus, 9.02 refers to the version released in February 2009.

  28. Chris Grill Says:

    There was an Autocad Release 13

  29. Joel Says:

    I’ve read ages ago that “XP” stands for the Greek letters Chi-Rho, and is really a reference to Microsoft’s ambitious Cairo project which didn’t make it into NT 4. Read about it here:

  30. Paul Archer Says:

    I’ve always found Sun’s SunOS/Solaris versioning to be interesting:

    Sun started out with a BSD-style OS called SunOS. That went from 1.0 to 4.1. Then they switched to a SVR4 OS, which was Solaris. But to show continuity with the older OS, they called it SunOS 5.0, as well as Solaris 2.0. At the same time, they renamed the older OS Solaris 1.x.
    They went through SunOS 5.0-5.6, which was Solaris 2.0-2.6. Then for the next release, someone let the marketers out of their cages again, and SunOS 2.7/Solaris 2.7 became known as just Solaris 7.
    The current version [Open]Solaris 11 is still officially SunOS 5.11.

  31. testman Says:

    As other said, you’ve forgotten a big one : Java ! The numbering is quite funny too.

    An example of version : 1.6.0_11-b03

    1 = Major is always 1, although big changes were introduced in the platform/language
    6 = Median is the real major version of Java, always increment of 1.
    0 = Minor was added on 1.1 serie to track small changes/fix, but since 1.4, it has always been 0
    11 = Since minor is no more used, this is the real minor version of Java. This is a non-continous increment, it can jump from one value to another one
    b03 = version of the build, sequence number of a fiven real version

    So the real version could be read as : 6.11.3 !

    As another fun, the marketing from 1.2 to 1.5 was Java 2, followed with the major+median 🙂 Now, only the median is given : eg, Java 6 🙂

    More on :

  32. Jimbo Says:

    I notice there’s already one comment about winamp skipping from version 3 to 5, they actually gave a list of reasons for this, my favourite was that people download winamp 3 skins but who would want to download winamp 4 skins? (if you missed the joke, try reading it out loud.)

  33. jfruh Says:

    I always assumed that the years-as-version-number thing was all about psychological obsolescence. I’m still happily using Windows XP on my secondary computer; I admit that, irrational as it would be, if it were named “Windows 2002” I would feel somewhat more of a tug to upgrade, here in 2009.

  34. itomato Says:

    Apple’s not using ‘wild cats’, but the ‘great cats’, IIRC.

  35. jim collins Says:

    You left out years and seasons as version numbers (Clipper, Salesforce, “Summer ’87))
    FYI Windows NT was named so as to be one letter away from VMS, as Dave Cutter wrote both…

  36. David Hamilton Says:

    So, I’m intrigued…

    What the hell are Microsoft going to call the edition of Windows that is actually version 7? Or are they expecting never to have to replace 6.1?!!!!

  37. Blitz Says:

    The first release of dBase was dBase II:

    And the Chessmaster series began with “The Chessmaster 2000” in 1986.

  38. Steve L Says:

    Another one of Professor Knuth’s programs, Metafont, has a similar version numbering system. However, its version is converging to the constant e rather than pi.

  39. DoctorFortran Says:

    Some of the past examples in this entertaining article are a bit off. “Fortran 66” is not in fact the official name, but a convenient label applied after the fact, and the 66 is a year not a version number, as it indicates the year (1966) when that revision of the Fortran standard (officially, FORTRAN IV) was finalized. Later revisions of Fortran did include the year number in the official name, starting with Fortran 90. Other programming languages also use year numbers to identify standards revisions (Ada 83, C 89, etc.)

    Regarding Windows 7, the version displays as 6.1 as lots of software would freak out if the major version changed from 6 (Vista) to 7. A version of 6.1 allows most software that supports Vista to install and run on Windows 7 without complaint.

    You are absolutely correct, though, that version numbers are largely marketing-driven. As a software developer for over 30 years, I’ve seen many times a debate about when or whether we should “bump” the version number to a new .0 release, the marketing folks saying that the retail channel loves this as it encourages new purchases, even when the developers say that not enough has changed to warrant such a thing.

    I find the use of years for software products to be largely a sales gimmick and hope it fades away.

  40. Chris Tomalty Says:

    You forgot to mention Ubuntu Linux’s versioning system (which as far as I know is unique): year.month, ie the release from April (month 04) of 2009 was 9.04 whereas the release from October (month 10) of 2007 was 7.10. They are also – like Mac releases – affectionately called by their development names (Feisty Fawn=7.04, Gutsy Gibbon=7.10, Hardy Heron=8.04 LTS, Intrepid Ibex=8.10, Jaunty Jackalope=9.04, Karmic Koala=9.10)

  41. MG Says:

    Someone above mentioned the XBox360 and suggested it was named that way to 1-up Sony who was releasing the Playstation 3. That reminded me of another I find interesting but isn’t software related (or a version number, actually).

    Pepsi came out with a 1 calorie version of it’s popular soft drink called “Pepsi One”. Shortly thereafter, Coke reformulated Diet Coke and came out with “Coke Zero”. A nice slap in the face for Pepsi.

  42. Rodge Says:

    IIRC AutoCAD jumped from 2.9 straight to 9.0

  43. Carsen Campbell Says:

    I think that there may be a mistake with the numbering of Windows versions in this article, as the second release of Windows wasn’t 2.0, rather it was a dual-product release; one was Windows 286 and the other was Windows 386. Each was built to take advantage of the appropriate chip’s capabilities, not that anyone noticed or purchased it!

  44. David Says:

    Windows NT was the first 32 bit version of Windows. Win95, 98, ME still had 16 MS-DOS roots. The first version of NT was actually 3.1, and was followed by NT 3.51, NT 4.0, NT 5.0 (Win2000), NT 5.1 (Xp), etc. The recent Windows server versions have been SP1 of the desktop versions.

    The NT acronym has been defined as “Windows New Technology”. Dave Cutler was the NT architect, and previously worked for Digital where he was the VMS architect. Urban legend has it that “WNT” is really “VMS” with each letter incremented by 1. Just like the movie 2001 where “HAL” is “IBM” with each letter incremented by 1.

  45. Greger Says:

    Windows XP is version 5.1.
    Maybe that’s why no one wants to give it up, as with WP 5.1?

    Anyway, you also forgot the NT version 3.1, 3.5, 3.51 and 4.0.
    XP being NT 5.1 and Windows 7 is NT 6.1

  46. Vaughan Chandler Says:

    There’s also Apple’s Safari – the version I have identifies itself as both 4.0.2 and 530.19.1

  47. J Says:

    There are other versioning schemes too. The Ubuntu method was already mentioned in another comment. Some software are versioned just after build numbers (which is also a common way to refer to the vast number of different Windows 7 versions leaked to outside world).

    AFAIK the Word for Windows version jump (to version 6.0) was at least not marketed as getting in par with WP, but rather to get in par with Word (for DOS, that is). Word for Windows 1.0 was feature wise the same as Word 5.0, and Word 6.0 was practically the same software as Word for Windows 6.0, just with GUI.

    As far as Windows versioning is concerned, don’t mix Windows 95 series (ie. Win95/98/Me) with current Windows versions. They were from different codebranch altogether. You can think of the versioning to start from the first release of NT branch, which was called “Windows NT 3.0”. The initial release was numbered as 3.0, as it was using the same GUI visuals as Windows 3.0. After that there were the NT 3.1, 3.5, 3.51 and (the more famous) 4.0. From there on the article describes the correct versioning (2000 = 5.0, XP = 5.1, Vista = 6.0 and 7 = 6.1).

    Another anecdote of leaping version numbers is Computer Associates (nowadays called just CA). They have an security management product family called eTrust. When they collected all related products and created the product family, they synced all version numbers to the highest one, which was 7.0 at the time. The next releases of all the software in the family were 8.0. I remember that eTrust Admin was a bit problematic to handle to at least one of my customers, as they first installed eTrust Admin 2.0, then tested eTrust Admin 3.0 beta, which waa later released as eTrust Admin 8.0. IIRC the family has also some product that jumped straight from 1.0 to 8.0.

    – J

  48. Eelco Says:

    The Windows version numbers were “reset” when MS shifted to the NT branch as the basis for further development. Windows NT 4.0 was a pretty good OS, especially when compared to its in-house rival at the time, Windows 95. The successor of NT 4 was Windows 2000, which led to Windows XP, etc.

  49. Remington Rand Says:

    Possibly the earliest use of a version number was A-0 in 1951-52. See

  50. Tom Says:

    You didn’t mention build numbers (although some previous commenters did).

    These frequently get started because marketing doesn’t want to allow engineering to change the version numbers, even though the products has been revved somewhat. The don’t want to have to change boxes, flyers, and other collateral.

    In some cases, I’ve even had marketing ask us to not change the build number, as the functional changes were trivial, but it led some customers to ask for an upgrade to the latest version – even if the changes were not relevant for them.

    We said no.

  51. Jonathan Briggs Says:

    I’m rooting for Apple to name a version “Feral Tabby.”

  52. LCB Says:

    Another thumbs down for totally missing out on the Java versioning mess. You could write at least several pages on that alone. Besides the Java 2 v. 1.2, etc., there is the whole SE v. EE etc. mess

    Totally messes with the minds of tech recruiters (which is not hard to do at all). 😀

  53. Andrew Says:

    Long before all this, there was Algol 58, which was a language designed by a committee in 1958, but for mathematicians, not computers. In 1960, the Algol committee prodiced a veriosn for computers called Algol60, and the Algol committee later produced Algol68, which was the best computer language ever – efficiently supporting multithreading, inter process communication, etc. it was the ultimate “I say what I want, and you figure out how to do it” high level language. Most implementations supported linking with libraries written in “other languages” (meaning Fortran. Cobol and Assembler – the only options at the time)

    Unfortunately Algol was a European idea, and not American, so it quickly fell into disuse.

  54. Mola Says:

    On the Compucolor II, they had two different o/s versions, 6.78 (June 1978) and 8.79 (August 1979). I think that is the earliest version number that used Month and Year.

  55. jakesdad Says:

    sooo, what they’re saying is that marketing weasels use misleading names to elicit emotional responses from potential customers?

    in other news: a bear defecated in a national park today and rumors persist that the Pope may, in fact, be Catholic…

  56. JB Says:

    Don’t for get Intel. First there was the 8080 then the 8086. This was followed by the 80286. After that the 80 was dropped and it was called the 386 and the little used 486.

    At this point someone at Intel realized that they couldn’t trademark numbers like 586 so instead they called it the Pentium.

    After that I lost track.


  57. sparky Says:

    Pepsi vs Coke continued when Pepsi advertised Pepsi Max as ‘Why would you want zero when you can have Max?’

  58. K Says:

    Odd that MS treats Win 2K as the fourth version of Windows since 2K was the demystified descendant of Windows NT.

  59. BenEnglish Says:

    I first became aware of version numbers in hardware. Specifically, the Nikon F competed against the Canon F1. So Nikon introduced the F2. Then Canon came up with a new model that should logically be called the F2…only they couldn’t name it the same as the Nikon. So they called it the “New F1”. Nikon proceeded to come out with F-series machine up through F6. Canon abandoned the nomenclature and, with the next big design leap, introduced the EOS line. I always thought that stuff was fascinating.

  60. Craig Wilson Says:

    I find it interesting that Knuth would hone in on pi as a stable release number. Whenever I would build a version of the APL environment for testing, I would call it version “3.14159 – an irrational version”, because pi is an irrational number.

    APL – in your heart you know it is right……to left.

  61. Mycroft Says:

    ADS/O had a fun numbering system. 1.0, 1.1, then 10.0 and from there 11, 12 and up to about 16 now.

    The explaination was that in 1985 or so Cullinet wanted to syncronize all the version numbers across the product line. So, IDMS 5.5 went to 5.7 and then jumped to 10.0 with ADS/O.

  62. ChrisByrnes Says:

    re: decimal notation early use. The first operating system I was trained on at IBM was DOS 26.2

    That’s System/360 DOS. I do not know of a decimal point in any of the earlier DOS or OS releases, I believe that 26.1 was issued in about 1969.

  63. Anarch157a Says:

    sorry, but you got the windows versioning all wrong.

    you listed in the same sequence two different products that just happened to have similar names.

    windows versions from 1.0 to Me, all were just graphical environments on top of MS-DOS, they all ran on top ov varied versions of DOS from 1.0 to WfW 3.11, then 95-Me only on top of DOS 7.x (but with some clever hacking, you could make then run on top of DR-DOS too).

    the other product line is the windos NT series. the NT moniker was created to diferentiate this line, a brand new OS developed from scratch, from the GUI-for-DOS. the NT line leading to vista and seven is:

    Windows NT 3.1, 3.5, 3.51, 4.0
    Windows 2000 (droped the NT from the version)

    from here on, there’s a split between the client (for desktop use) and server versions, but they’re all descendants from NT

    Clients: Windows XP, Vista, 7 (soon to be released)
    Server: 2003, 2008 and 2008 R2 (soon to be released)

    on the StarOffice/OpenOffice thing, StarOffice existed as a closed source office suite from a german company before Sun bought it and opened the code. the Sun branded suite, with a lot of added extras, continues the numbering from where it was when they bought it, while the opensource counterpart follows their own numbering, with 1.0 being the first stable release of the open version.

    compare the versioning on apple’s open source darwin core and Mac OS X for a similar case.

    Google branding the new Chrome 2.0 is pure marketing, applied to the google branded stable build of an open source project called “chromium”

    and yes, i’m being pedantic. comes with the geek membership card.

  64. Dan Says:

    Microsoft has always played fast and loose with their version numbers for marketing reasons. XP was originally named Whistler, and Office would have been Office 10… until Apple came out with OS X. To steal name recognition, Microsoft rebranded Office and Windows, but they couldn’t be Office X and Windows X without running into potential trademark problems, so they became Office XP and Windows XP.

    Similarly, when Microsoft retired the XBox and released the XBox 2, Sony had just released the Playstation 3. Rather than be a generation behind – in purely marketing-speak, rather than hardware – they rebranded it XBox360. This will prove to be a problem when Sony releases the PS4, and the XBox has to go to… XBox420?

  65. SmoothRT Says:

    Isn’t it obvious where the XP in Windows XP really came from? Mac OS X came out shortly before Windows XP if I recall. Mac OS X is obvious since it was replacing version nine and just switching to a roman numeral for marketing purposes. But then Microsoft had to come out with XP, trying to pretend that they have apple’s X with an extra P for… plus? It was Microsoft doing what they do best, stealing and copying from another company.

  66. /dev/joe Says:

    You missed a fun one. When I first used RoboHelp, then published by Blue Sky Software, it was version 7. They came out with version 2000 (which was internally version 8), then version 9, version 2002, and versions X3, X3.1, X4, and X5. (Note that the X-numbered versions came out in quick succession, and did not mean 2003-2005 unless you accept a fair bit of advance numbering.) Along the way, they changed their name to eHelp, and around the time X5 was released, they were bought by Macromedia, who never released any versions of RoboHelp, apparently content to simply attach their name to all but the very first RoboHelp X5 disks (those shipped to customers with maintenance agreements).

    Then Adobe bought Macromedia and revived RoboHelp, but they dropped the X, releasing products called Adobe RoboHelp 6, Adobe RoboHelp 7, and Adobe RoboHelp 8, duplicating previous version numbers for the product (unless “Adobe” is considered part of the version number).

  67. Don Says:

    According to IBM’s math 1.10 > 1.9

    Those are the latest version numbers of its flagship operating system, z/OS.

  68. Pedro Reina Says:

    First stable version of Debian was 1.1, not 1.0; that happened because of a company (dont rememeber what one) releasing unofficialy a buggy 1.0 version.

  69. MattH Says:

    Yes, the premise of the article may be obvious, but it’s still good historical trivia.

  70. Carnildo Says:

    Open-source software with high numbers (hundreds or above) usually isn’t using version numbers. They’re either build numbers (add 1 each time you compile the software) or revision numbers (add 1 each time you update the source-control repository).

  71. Tindra Says:

    A buddy of mine IS a defender of WinME. His logic: because it is so hated and got ditched by most users immediately, noone bothered to write viruses for it.

  72. susandsdavis Says:

    Someone already mentioned how Winamp jumped directly from version 3 to version 5, which helped to facilitate the fact WinAmp 5.0 was being marketed as versions 2+3=5. Another reason, given by the developer at the time, was this: considering the popularity of “skinning” the WinAmp UI to suit the user’s tastes, the leapfrog in version numbers was also a rather prudent sidestep around the faux pas of “WinAmp 4 Skins”.

  73. LeBla Says:

    Highest version number I can think of offhand: Office 2007.
    Followed by office 2003, and windows 2000.

  74. Michael Says:


    In fact, Algol58 was originally released as IAL (the International Algorithmic Language). When Algol60 was introduced, IAL was retroactively renamed to Algol58.
    There was also a variant of IAL called JOVIAL (Jules Own Version of IAL). Does that count as a version number?


  75. Jolyon Ralph Says:

    Don Says:

    According to IBM’s math 1.10 > 1.9

    This isn’t wrong. Traditionally, version numbers were .

    It’s not a decimal point.

    So, when you’re on the 9th minor revision of version 1 of your software it’s 1.9

    The next one, logically, is 1.10, and this continues until you reach a major revision, and then it goes to 2.0 and so on.


  76. kmself Says:

    @freddie: though a higher version number has been listed, regards your xterm example, it’s interesting to note that less is more:
    $ less –version
    less 418

    (however, most is less:
    $ most –version
    MOST version 5.0.0 (S-Lang version 2.1.3))

  77. John Flush Says:

    To answer the version of Gmail… I dont’ know the version but ‘Beta’ is in front of it. I mean, why release something if you can call it ‘Beta’ and then ignore the responsibility of having releases that are stable.

  78. Walter Dnes Says:

    3.1 is a computing “lucky number” because of 3 events…

    * Apple’s DOS 3.1 for the Apple ][ (long before MS-DOS) was generally considered the best OS the Apple ][ ever had

    * MS-DOS 3.1 was reasonably bug-free and very competent, except that it was limited to 32-megabyte partitions. MS-DOS broke that limit, but was a memory hog, and slow. MS-DOS 5.1 was much better.

    * as you mentioned, Windows 3.1 was pretty good for its day

    The Apple numbering of the Apple ][ and Apple /// was interesting.

    And since you mentioned Sergio Mendes, did you know that his group started out as “The Sergio Mendes Trio”, and produced an album titled… wait for it… “Brasil 65”. It was the success of that album that caused the renaming of the group. The album is available (used) on Amazon at

  79. Chuck Winters Says:

    We use version numbers to indicate changes that ‘break’ interfaces. Major numbers indicate changes that will compromise earlier data structures, such as source or object files for compilers and linkers. The Major numbers also indicate a change to the functionality that cannot be supported by the earlier major versions. The minor numbers are used for bug fixes, and making things work correctly that may not have been so well done before.

  80. GregV Says:

    I remember reading back in the day about Intel’s name switch from 80486 to Pentium… Apparently some hick town judge ruled that numbers can not be trademarked. There has to be atleast one letter for it to be a valid trademark. That’s why all the chip makers suddenly switched to names or stuck some random letter in the middle of the chip number!

  81. Bob Hepple Says:

    Nice article – amusing and evidently sooo contributable if you’ll excuse the word-mangling.

    But it’s incomplete without mention of the most important aspect of version numbers – the contract they form between developer and end-user. For example, sensible operating systems like Linux use version numbering to tame the dependency hell of shared libraries – and are ABI compatible while and might not be. In general the major (first) level guarantees ABI comptibility in libraries and data compatibility in programs. The minor (second) level merely enumerates bug fixes.

    Another aside on version numbers is the tendency (especially in the open source world that I inhabit) of developers to shyly add a new _level_ to a version number rather than boldly incrementing the number itself. Thus version 0.9.5 becomes instead of 0.9.6 – as if the developer were modestly understating their own contribution. Some of them prefer stepping out of the numerical harness and start dashing and underscoring their way – so we get 0.9.5-beta and then 0.9.5_svn20090714.lvn8. Sadly that’s a real example which would be OK if it were a developer-only release but it’s installed on my machine. This accretion of version numbers and schemes soon becomes too crufty and top-heavy – time for the lead developer to step in and prune the growth.

    I’m sure there is a name for all this just like Parkinson’s and Murphy’s law or the Peter Principle. If not, I hereby christen it Hepple’s Hypothesis – for the appealing alliteration if nothing else!

    BTW – the emacs I just popped up on my screen is version, not the 22.x mentioned in the text; it’s not generally released, you need to get it from the live repository and build it yourself.

  82. tuxey Says:

    Very interesting article. My wife and I really enjoyed reading it and remembering old software and their version numbers!

  83. William Antonio Says:

    Can someone please explain me the difference between “highest version number” and “greatest version number”? Thanks 🙂

  84. baylink Says:

    As someone intimates above, but doesn’t actually say…

    Yes 1.10 > 1.9

    This is because 1.10 != 1.1.0, Windows 3.1.1 notwithstanding.

  85. Sam Dutton Says:

    My favourite version-skip was with the series of Lancia cars in the 1970s.

    They couldn’t have a Lancia Alpha (because of Alfa Romeo) so they had to begin with the Lancia Beta.

    (Actually, I just checked. Turns out there was a 1907 Lancia Alpha — a couple of years before Alfa Romeo was founded.)

  86. J Says:

    Oldest version numbers:

    Linear A: Linear A is one of two linear scripts used in ancient Crete before Mycenaean Greek Linear B… Linear A seems to have been used as a complete syllabary around 1900 – 1800 BC,

    Linear B: Linear B is a script that was used for writing Mycenaean Greek, an early form of Greek. It predated the Greek alphabet by several centuries (ca. 13th but perhaps as early as late 15th century BC).

    Linear C: (Redirected from Linear C [Already the marketers were messing with the version numbers!]) The Cypro-Minoan syllabary (abbreviated CM) is an undeciphered syllabic script used on the island of Cyprus during the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1550-1050 BC).

    Beat that!

    Can you imagine in 1800 BC how much of a pain the upgrade cycle must have been when everyone had to update their clay tablets?

  87. s. Says:

    Windows XP ?
    XP is not an acronym.
    It’s an emoticon.

  88. Adam Says:

    @William Antonio

    Greatest as in best, so most awesome version number; not largest value of version number, which would be the same as highest version number.

  89. mike Says:

    My problem is they come out with new versions too often. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  90. John Lucas Says:

    In your list of Windows versions the most important version(s) were omitted. After Windows 3.x and before Windows 2000 came Windows NT 3.0 – 4.1 (there were no versions 1.x or 2.x). Since all subsequent Windows versions stem from NT and *not* Windows 1-3.x, 95, 98 or ME. Windows 1.x-3.x used and entirely separate codebase from the NT, XP, 2000, Vista codebase.

    My take on the MS versioning since NT is that they want the consumer to think that these are entirely new products and not incremental improvements. That way they can charge more and justify scrambling the menus/user interface.

  91. Ted Rico Says:

    As a release engineer I admit to running extra builds to try and get a release at a prime number…

  92. SLEZE Says:

    OS X was originally meant to be spoke as OS 10 because it replaced OS 9. I never liked the redundancy of OS X 10.x as it is as tacky as the referring to Lambeau field in winter as an icy tundra.

  93. Mikka Says:

    It is unfortunately the opposite in the Mechanical Engineering world, where releasing a design to a customer with anything higher than a ‘-‘ (dash), [blank], or ‘A’ is considered sacrilegious. It often hides the fact that there may have been may changes made to the original design documents all of which are lost to history for the sake of what is essentially marketing.

    Maybe we should just use Star-Dates…

  94. B. Tong Says:

    The band “Zebra” has an album named “3.V”, which I perceive the V to be a roman numeral; 3.5 in other, uh, words. 🙂

  95. Mark Says:

    If numbers can not be copyrighted, then dose this include roman numbers and hexadecimal numbers?

    If so then can’t copyright ‘OS X’ as 10 is a number
    and can’t copyright the gas company Esso as #hE550 = 58704.

    I’m sure Esso will try and change this law.

  96. pch Says:

    J: Aren’t Linear A, B, C just designations applied by the the archaeologists, not the people of that time?

    Mike: Most software is broke. The issue is whether the bugs have been found and fixed.

  97. Champu Laal Says:

    Love the ubuntu versioning format . . Easy to remember and logical.

    But then who knows when that may change.

    Yours humbly.

  98. Howard Says:

    Back in the early 70’s, University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) had their own version of the Fortran compiler with debugging features to help students, called Watfor for WATerloo FORtran. When the next version of Fortran (version 4 or IV) was released, Waterloo came out with WATFIV (pronounced WhatFive) for WATerloo Fortran IV. Note the double usage of the name and version number, quite inventive.

    IBM in those days also had Assembler F for the 360 series of mainframes. Waterloo had a debugging version called Assembler G. When IBM came out with their next version, they called it Assembler H, skipping the Waterloo version “letter”.

    I sometimes wonder if big companies and institutions have whole departments dedicated to naming and numbering conventions! Can you imagine the resumes of those people? “Spent my entire career coming up with the perfect release numbers for 117 products with 885 revisions and releases”. And their performance reviews: “John Smith came up with the number for our latest product release, we’re so proud and hereby award John this gift certificate for $25.97 1/2 cents”.

  99. Markus Says:

    I fondly remember this slipup with Novell NDS (nowadays Novell eDirectory): Back when the version was 8.0, marketing decided the next major version should be called 8.5. But nobody seems to have told the current developers, since when 8.5 should have been released, the “old” version was already at 8.7. Whoops. This lead to strange technical documents, which told you, software X required NDS 8.5, and you wondered why your 8.7 was “too old”. They eventually decided to rename 8.5 to “85”, causing more confusion than clarity.

    A little while later, they officially changed the numbering to two different version number: The marketing number (i.e. 8.5, 8,.6 8.7, 8.8) and an internal number (totally unparseable 5+2 digit numbers like 20216.62). Presumably, this was done to enhance clarity in version numbers.

  100. factcheck Says:

    Actually the windows timelien is not accurate at all. Windows XP is a branch of the NT family not the Win32 Family. So NT 4.0, win200&XP are 5.0, vista is 6.0, windows 7 is 7.

  101. Rix Says:

    Great article…plus I had as much fun reading the comments…

  102. Rif Says:

    PKZip was 2.04 -> 2.5 -> 4.0. They skipped version 3 because during the era of PKZip 2 someone created a virus pretending to be PKZip version 3.

    Oracle RDBMS was AFAIR 8i then 9g, with no real explanation for the i (internet?) and g (grid?).

    Product name reuse/hide history: In the end of 1990’ies Oracle put out an OLAP database system called Oracle Express. It had nothing to do with the wellknown RDBMS. It is the worst product product I have had to program on. Server end was unbelievable slow for executing programs, the client end was buggy and terrible limited Visual Basic clone, a total waste of time to use. Oracle soon after introduced OLAP features into the RDBMS but fully incompatible to the Express product. Then terminated the Express product. Since then this OLAP Express product has been written out of history to the extend that Oracle has used the Express name for a completely different product, namely the free version of Oracle RDBMS.

  103. Matei Says:

    Great article! I enjoy reading it and thanks for putting this massive effort for us to read. You illustrated very clearly the benefits and the downwards of every approach, I find this very useful for my personal work.

  104. Graham Says:

    About the Word version number, the jump to 6.0 was to sync the WinWord and MacWord version numbers, since MacWord was already at 5.1 and MS switched to a common code base for v6. That info is actually at the wikipedia link you provided in the article.

  105. Richie Says:

    Per DoctorFortran: “…starting with Fortran 90.”

    There was a Fortran 77 as well.

    Per jim collins, David, and j:

    Kindly do not give all credit for VMS to Mr. Cutler. While he was one of the main developers from (before) the start, he was involved with other pursuits somewhere in the V2 to V3 timeframe before leaving DEC. And there is more than just legend to support the notion that VMS + 1 = WNT.

    Perhaps the most stable versioning system has been VMS, running with some logic from release 1.0 in 1977 to 8.3 (correct me if I’m out of date) today. Now there were some marketing intrusions (such as the ill starred decision to change the name from VMS to OpenVMS) and glitches (multiple attempts at V6.0), but all in all, major releases indicated significant rewrites or new classes of features (Vn.0), minor releases were other important changes (Vn.m), bug fix releases really did so (Vn.m-a), and hardware releases (-aHb) were specific to new CPU types.

    As for one comment regarding stability, software released with a new version most likely won’t run on a previous release, but *all user applications* from *all* previous releases will run on the current release on all hardware (your performance will vary).

    For those who remember the Y2K frenzy, might two-digit year versioning lead to issues in another 90 years? :^P

  106. Eddy Carroll Says:

    The largest “real” version number I’ve come across was on our office Nortel Meridian PBX, a few years ago, which was running Version 29. of the PBX OS. The documentation had an original copyright date of 1973, with the current version copyrighted around 2001.

    This was entirely reflected in the command line interface, which was definitely the most archaic I’ve ever seen on a commercial product!

  107. Tom Sonson Says:

    Thank you for this informative article. Good post!

  108. chris Says:

    Very good article, interesting read!
    AutoCAD first started in '82, they're now at version 26, even though they've swapped to year numbers as from 2000. However, they're pretty conservative in their numbering, having not omitted version 13 and not even been using in-between versions!

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