Once upon a time, somebody came up with a system of versioning for software. The first public release of a program would be version 1.0. Minor revisions to that version would be 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, etc. Major updates would cycle to the next number, like 2.0.

This was the way it worked with almost every program, from operating systems to word processors and so on. Many of us can remember Windows 3.1, Mac OS 8.6, Word Perfect 5.1, and Microsoft Office 6.0. This system made it easy to see, at a glance, how your version of a product compared to one that a coworker might have. It also lets you know how long a product has been around—theoretically, software in its 8th version will be more developed and established than one in its 1st version.

Because it makes sense, I use this system for my website. When I designed my first personal site, my difficulty in developing an original title led me to name it “Website 1.0!!!”. While the version number doesn’t take the prominence that it used to, you’ll notice in my “legal & other info” blurble that I clearly identify the site today as Website 14.1: the first minor revision to the fourteenth major design.

Now, I’m going to give you a bit of history on Microsoft operating systems. This is a bit confusing, but bear with me—I confuse you intentionally!

Sometime around 1995, Microsoft—harbinger of so many harebrained ideas—had another doozy. Their major update to the Windows operating system wouldn’t be called Windows 4.0, as would make sense (the current version at the time was 3.1). Instead, Microsoft would christen their new creation “Windows 95.”

The next version, which should have been 5.0, was called “Windows 98.” The next version after that, which probably should have been 5.1, was “Windows 98 Second Edition.” Following that was a monstrosity we all know and loathe called “Windows Millennium Edition (ME),” which really should have been 6.0.

Meanwhile, Microsoft had another operating system product line. Back in the days when most people were using Windows 3.1, Microsoft had a second OS called Windows NT 3. Shortly after Windows 95 came out, Bill Gates and company released Windows NT 4.0. At least one of their divisions still had their senses about them.

But the senseless so often emerge victorious over the those with sense, and the next version of Windows NT—which should have been Windows NT 5.0—was named “Windows 2000.” Now, despite the confusing name, Windows 2000 was not the sequel to Windows 95, 98, and 98SE. In fact, Windows 2000 was of a completely different progeny. It was the sequel to Windows NT 4.

As if this wasn’t confusing enough, Microsoft had even more up its sleeve. The next version of Windows combined the consumer line (95, 98, 98SE, and ME) with the NT line (NT4, 2000) to make the most modern version of Windows available today. This product, actually based on Windows 2000, should probably be called Windows NT 6.0 or—for marketing reasons only—Windows 7.0. Instead, Bill Gates and his ingenious bunch decided to name it Windows XP.

Now, I’ve laid it all out for you in semi-logical form. But if you didn’t have me or some other computer nerd to help you out, how would you be able to tell what’s the best among Windows 2000, Windows XP, and Windows ME? How would you know which is the newest? That’s why I ranted all those paragraphs about obscure versions of the (illogically) most popular operating system in the world. I wanted to prove to you that this new way of identifying software is confusing!

Now, Microsoft has clearly let this disease spread through their own ranks. We had Microsoft Office 98, Microsoft Office 2000, Microsoft Office X (that’s the Mac version), and then Microsoft Office XP. We have Front Page 2000. We have all these other incoherently named products from one of the largest software firms in the world. Fine. I don’t really care what Microsoft does, that’s why I became a Mac user. But, for some bizarre reason, many other companies have started to do the same thing!

Two major graphics companies—Adobe and Macromedia—have both jumped on this “replace version numbers with idiotic number and letter combinations” bandwagon. What used to be known as Adobe Photoshop 7.0 got upgraded to Adobe Photoshop CS. Macromedia Flash picked up an “MX” appendage. The same goes for most of the other products from these two companies.

Even companies that traditionally go against the Microsoft grain have picked this up, albeit to a more limited extent. One of my favorite companies has also played some tricky games with version numbers of late. When Apple went back to the drawing board and developed a new operating system from scratch, after Mac OS 9, they decided to name it Mac OS X (10.0). The X, by the way, is just a Roman-numeral 10.

But 10.0 was really just a beta, a piece of software undergoing a public test. It should not have had its own version at all. The first version of Mac OS X that was ready for prime-time (which should have been called Mac OS 10), was actually called Mac OS X (10.1). Apple’s next update was a major upgrade, and should have been called Mac OS 11, but instead the company named it Mac OS X (10.2) “Jaguar.” The next major upgrade should have been Mac OS 12, but was instead called Mac OS X (10.3) “Panther.”

So imagine that you don’t know any of that yet. What’s better: Jaguar, Mac OS X, Mac OS 9, or Panther? How would you know?

Even companies that have stuck to the old-fashioned number system don’t always follow it logically. America OnLine (AOL) is up to version 9 right now, but versions 6, 7, and 8 were virtually identical and probably should have been 6.0, 6.1, and 6.2. Netscape—which is a division of AOL now—makes the second most popular web browser, Netscape Navigator. The last version of Navigator before Netscape got bought by AOL was version 4.7. The first version after AOL bought them was 6.0.

What happened to version 5?

On a broader level, what happened to sanity in software marketing? Yeah, fine, the name Windows XP probably has more pizzaz than Windows 7.0 or Windows NT 6.0 would. I can admit that much. But the tried-and-true version system would make it nice and clear where the program falls in the grand scheme of software that came before. It would make things easier for the average consumer to understand.

I spent almost half of this rant just trying to explain what version came where in the lineage of a couple major programs, programs that many of you probably use almost every day. I’m the kind of guy that people go to with computer questions, and I usually spend about half the time trying to explain the same thing. Non-nerds often don’t even know that XP is the newest version of Windows, or that it’s any better than ME.

And why should they?

The insanity has gone too far. Programmers and software marketers need to go back to the basics, both in how they write their programs and in how they name them. Microsoft is hard at work on their next version of Windows (code-named “Longhorn”), I can only hope that they decide to do something really revolutionary and name it “Windows 8.0″ instead of “Windows 2007″ (2009? 2015?) or “Windows XM.”

Then again, if Microsoft can produce an operating system without any security holes, bugs, or ugly blue-candy themes . . . heck, they can name it whatever they like.