Software Release Management - Why You Can’t And Shouldn’t Force People to Use the Latest Version

As software creators we don't get to decide what version of our tools / libraries that people use. If we try to force them, our users will go somewhere else.

Update: What Type of Software This Applies To

This post talks of tools, applications and libraries. Things that end up in the users hands. This does not apply to SaaS or websites. These do not end up in the hands of the users in the same sense.

For those of you who immediately think of Chrome or Firefox, which are applications that end up in the users hands, those apply to this post as well. They have nearly perfected a silent upgrade experience, but if they ever mess up that experience, users can choose to use something else. And I believe there is a way to opt out as well (not easily achieved but possible).

Software Release Management

I write software. Much of it is open source. I have multiple versions of my products out there. Even with newer versions available that fix bugs and bring about new features, I still find people using older versions. Even though I have a better newer version that fixes some of the bugs they are dealing with, they are still using an older version. Think about that for a second. There must be a good reason right? Let’s state this in an official sense.

As a software creator you release software. You put a release out there and people use that release. You delineate different releases by a concept of versioning. People use a particular version of your release. You release newer versions of your software that has fixes and enhancements. You hope users upgrade to the latest release when it is available.

I’ve stated five facts and finished with a hope. If you can accept those as facts, we can move on. If we can’t, then you might want to stop reading now because we are never going to agree. If you are a developer like me, you really want people to always use the latest version of your software, so you might be able to accept the last statement as a fact for you. I really want people to always use the latest release of my software as I have went through the trouble of testing it and making it better.

Now let me change some terms for you. Software release management is really a fancy way of saying package management. A software release could be better termed a package. So to restate, as a software creator, you release packages. You put a package out there and people use that package. You delineate different packages by a concept of versioning. People use a particular version of your package. You release newer versions of your package that has fixes and enhancements. You hope users upgrade to the latest package when it is available.

The Hope Versus The Force

I say “hope they upgrade” because you really can’t control that aspect. You can try. You can delete the older versions. You can refuse to have older versions available. You can tell users that they should and need to upgrade. But you put it out there once and it is now out there forever. People will find a way to get to the particular version they need. Or they will go elsewhere. Users speak with their feet.

I find attempting to force a user to do something is both an exercise in futility and a great way to guarantee that you have less users overall.

So people must want to use a particular version of a product. Let’s examine this a little more. Why on earth would someone use an older version of a product when a newer, better, less buggier version is available?

Why Do Users Use Older Versions?

Users use older versions of our packages and they have great fundamental reasons for doing so:

  • It reduces their risk.
  • It guarantees that users of their library (that has a dependency on your library) have a good experience.
  • It guarantees that the product that they have tested is the same product that gets into the hands of consumers.
  • It guarantee their product builds successfully and the same way each time.

In fixing a product and making it better and less buggier, you may actually be breaking someone’s ability to use a newer version. And you have no guarantee to the user that this version doesn’t have flaws of it’s own. Right? Otherwise there would only be one version that ever had fixes in it. We wouldn’t need to release newer versions with fixes, only enhancements. But we don’t. We fix things we thought worked and we fix things we tested but missed some crazy edge case. This is why we go down this path of release management. This is software development.

So people get a certain version and they use it. Users upgrade to the latest version of software when they are ready, not when the software creator is ready. People depend on certain versions or on a range of versions.  In reality I can't force someone to use the latest version. If I try, they will find the version they need through the powers of the internet or find another way. Accepting that, I can give them a way to see it and help them fall into the pit of success. 

From the User Perspective

Shifting to the perspective of the user, I might use your library in my own software. Being able to build my product, even if it means it is using an older version of your package that has bugs, is worlds more important to me and my users. We'll get to your latest version when we can test that it doesn't break our product. But don't try to force me to upgrade to your latest version or I will find another way. I'm not saying that with your package but in all packages the newer version may be buggier than the current buggy version we are using. We don't know and you can’t guarantee that it doesn’t, even with extensive testing. Testing doesn’t prove the absence of bugs, only the absence of errors that you know. I digress.

It’s an evil that we know versus and evil that we don’t. Or put another way, it's a buggy version we know versus a buggy version we don't.

If it’s a tool, we need to ensure that our usage of your product still meets our expectations. We need to test it even though you did and make sure it still works for our needs and scenarios. Where it doesn’t we need to decide if that means we can shift our expectations and upgrade. But we are not going to blindly upgrade and just use the latest version because the software creator believes that is best.

Can you cover the millions of dollars that we might lose by taking on a newer version of your product? If you can give me that guarantee, as a user I will gladly pass that risk on to you.

Final Thoughts

Whether you agree or not, as software creators we don't get to decide what version of our tools / libraries that people use. We just don’t have that luxury. If we try to our users will go somewhere else. So we make it easy for them to upgrade so they will want to. We make the upgrade experience painless so they will want to. We need to be good stewards.

Print | posted @ Wednesday, January 25, 2012 10:28 AM

Comments on this entry:

Gravatar # re: Software Release Management - Why You Can’t And Shouldn’t Force People to Use the Latest Version
by Dru Sellers at 1/25/2012 10:52 AM

An interesting thought. How does this play out when you consider SaaS services upgrade daily and browsers are now upgrading silently (namely Chrome and I think firefox)?
Gravatar # re: Software Release Management - Why You Can’t And Shouldn’t Force People to Use the Latest Version
by Robz at 1/25/2012 10:56 AM

Good point - I guess this doesn't really apply to SaaS or websites for that matter. With browsers upgrading silently, you still opt in to let that happen or you decide not to use the application. Chrome and Firefox have found a nice way to do it without breaking my experience, but the first time they do, they'll sure hear about it from their users.
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