Windows, Mac, and Linux version naming schemes explained
What is a Pangolin, and what makes it Precise? How does Windows' most popular version earn its "XP" tag -- the "eXPerience," its "eXPonential" improvements over Windows ME?
Do software version names matter at all? Or are we all just curating a rich library of goofy things for future archaeologists to laugh at? Does anybody buy, use, or trust the code on their computer, tablet, or phone based on its name?
I wanted to get some real answers to these questions, and give the crafters of silly software names a chance to speak. I imagined hearing about some cah-razy IRC chat discussions that led to the naming of Ubuntu 11.10 as Oneiric Ocelot. I prepared to press some hard questions about how Fedora moved through versions 7, 8, then 9 as "Moonshine," "Werewolf," and then "Sulphur." I expected to hear something quite formal and corporate from Microsoft, and then nothing at all from Apple.
I traded emails with community managers at Ubuntu and Fedora. I hit up press contacts and known reporter-helpers at Microsoft and its PR firm, and they pointed me to a blog post. I reached out to Apple and, indeed, heard nothing back at all.
The best answer I've seen, or at least the most seemingly true and and simple, comes from a question about Android version names on Q&A site Quora, answered by an Android system engineer and voted up by other known Android community figures. Android works with "Tasty treats" for version names ("Cupcake," "Eclair," "Ice Cream Sandwich"), so as to "decouple the development name for an OS release from the final version number, since version numbers often will change for marketing reasons fairly late in the game." Was that an honest admission that engineers might think something is a .1 upgrade, but marketers in the same company might want to call it a whole new thing? That version names are really just an attempt to mark a point in time, rather than a statement of intent?
Then again, every software project has its reasons, and a history of decisions to guide or sidetrack them. Here are some of the most interesting.
Apple and the endangered big cats
The first thing I remember about Apple computers was their confusing naming. An uncle looking to sell a computer to my father made every attempt to explain why the IIc came after the IIe, and that the IIc was more powerful, and how both were different from the Macintosh, which had its own operating system. The computer got sold, I nearly wore out the Open Apple and Closed Apple keys on it, but I'm not sure my dad had any idea what he bought.
Then Steve Jobs returned to Apple. Under his second reign, the hardware and software lines simplified drastically. All the computers are Macs, all portables start with a lower-case "i," and every OS release since has been an "update" to Mac OS X (X for 10, following Mac OS 9). Each update is named after a "big cat" in a particular genus, one that can roar: Cheetah (10.0), Puma (10.1), Jaguar (10.2), and so on. The reasoning? HowStuffWorks suggests consumer-catching imagery. TUAW commenters note similarities to German armored vehicles. But the most intriguing rumor is that Apple took its cue from the naming scheme of a Mac "clone" maker.
However OS X gets its names, they've got about two more major variants left, Cougar and Lynx, before the nature preserve goes barren. Even before then, it's a strange scheme, as pointed out by one MacRumors poster.
… Cougar, panther, puma and mountain lion are basically the same animal. And that animal is not that big in size. So, a mountain lion is actually a smaller animal than a lion. It's like they're downgrading the king of the jungle to a smaller cat. … After Mountain Lion, if Apple still wants to release 10.9, they are going to have to use either Cougar or Catamount, which is still the same animal as panther, puma and mountain lion.
Windows can't make up its mind (Surprise!)
For an established corporation that sells the world's most popular desktop operating system to the biggest companies in the world, Microsoft's naming schemes are, honestly, kind of nuts.
It started simply enough, with Windows 1.0, 2.0, then 3.0 and 3.1, with an important side venture into Windows NT, intended for networked business clients. Then Windows ventured from its deep blues roots into the pop market, so to speak, with Windows 95, the OS originally named Windows 4.0 that launched with huge fanfare, ads featuring the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up", and lots of bugs. There was once a Windows 96 on the drawing board that was majorly focused around Internet Explorer 4.0, but they nixed the update, and stopped the late 1990s browser wars from getting even more heated. Then Windows 98, Windows 98 SE, and Windows ME, or Millenium Edition, arrived in fairly quick succession, but each of these, as later explained, was an increment on the original Windows 4.0/95: 4.0.1998, 4.10.2222, and 4.90.3000, respectively.
Meanwhile, Windows NT was marching along, but by the time it was time for Windows NT 5.0, Microsoft switched directions and went with Windows 2000, and switched the end-user client version from "Workstation" to "Professional." If you're a professional type looking to grab a computer system that will let you run Office and jump on the new-fangled web, which one do you need: Windows 98 SE or Windows 2000 Professional? It was going to get worse with Windows ".NET 2001," but Microsoft instead pressed all their software lines into Windows XP (named for the improved user experience). But XP couldn't take the weight, and it exploded into eight different variants: Embedded, Media Center, Tablet Edition, and the now-standard bevy of "editions": Home, Professional, Business, and so on.
Currently, we're at Windows version 6.1, but that version is called Windows 7. And Windows 8? That's version 6.2. Microsoft's Windows team says that's due in large part to minimizing compatibility problems with apps. But really it shows that Microsoft has a very specific system for naming new releases of Windows and other software: somebody thinks of a name, somebody is afraid to tell that person "No," and then it goes on a box.
Don't believe me? Look at the 10 worst Microsoft product names, as rounded up by Harry McCracken, and tell me that at least a few of those didn't have something to do with the wrong person receiving a bolt of inspiration.
Ubuntu and other Linux systems: goofy, cute, not all that important
One cynical way to approach Linux release naming is that anyone who's decided to install a free, open-source operating system on their computer, and keep it running, won't be swayed one way or another by a particular version name. And in some ways, that's true for Ubuntu, the popular Linux distribution that releases new versions every six months, complete with inscrutable version names.
The first release, 04.10, was codenamed "Warty Warthog" for its warts-and-all nature by founder Mark Shuttleworth. The convention stuck, and now every Ubuntu code name includes a creature and an alliterative description that somewhat relates to the release:
6.06 was "Dapper Drake," for its relative polish (as a five-year long-term support release). 8.04, another long-term release, was "Hardy Heron."
Version 10.10 was a "Maverick Meerkat," which Shuttleworth noted were "fast, light, and social," as were his aims for Ubuntu.
12.10 (due out October 2012) is "Quantal Quetzal," "quantal" meaning either "an entity that is quantized," or "something that is capable of existing in only one of two states." A quetzal is an adorable bird.
So you see that some thought, however lighthearted, goes into the version names for each Ubuntu release. But take a look around Ubuntu.com -- take the virtual tour, check out the new features, read up on what they're promoting -- there's not a mention of a Precise Pangolin or any other animal. The codenames are meant to give developers a handle on what they're working on, just in case 12.10 ends up missing its October deadline and arrives in November, or somebody makes the easy mistake of mistyping it as 11.10. Codenames, or version names, are for those who are so invested in the system, they're working on making it better.
Like Apple, Ubuntu would like the actual consumer of its goods to think less about versions and more about a continuity of features and connectivity across devices and updates. And that tends to be the case across many popular Linux distributions: Mint, Fedora, Gentoo, and so on. The real name is the brand name, while the version name is just for coders and snarky bloggers (ahem).
What did we learn?
Nobody is good at consistency in the software world, even at big, multi-national firms that make the core software for our computers. No version name is without fault, and any scheme, no matter how clever, will be dropped the moment it seems fun to go with something else. But most of all, it's increasingly rare to buy software in boxes these days, so nobody needs a name that looks good on a box. That's probably a bigger deal than you think.
Apple, Microsoft, Ubuntu, and the makers of your favorite productivity software are selling you on an ecosystem, one in which each version arrives with nothing but new features. You're not making a choice, you're upgrading. It's more for coders and acccessory makers to worry about the differences between Android 2.3 and 4.0, Gingerbread and Ice Cream Sandwich (or wonder where 3.0, Honeycomb, went off to). You? You should just know that they're working on updates, and they'll have a name just as soon as a marketing executive's 13-year-old niece thinks of a good one.