Less of a pressing question and more a "what happened here"?

At some point in the past decade (most) OS's have switched over to these codenames for their versions with names like Mountain Lion, Jellybean, etc. After a heated discussion with my Dad (who prefers version numbers) about why the names would be done like this, it dawned on me to ask if there was a (valid) UX reason for it vs. just a marketing/trademark one.

I don't think this idea has been explored all that well, just because we have such scattered implementations of it -- Android and Ubuntu are the only ones who use alphabetized naming conventions as a reinforcement of version numbering, Apple uses it for OSX (Snow Leopard, Lion...) but not for iOS (iOS4, iOS5...), and Windows isn't consistent about this stuff at all (XP, then Vista, then 7, then 8...)

Is there any rhyme / reason to all of this?

  • 10
    ...isn't that more a matter of marketing than one of UX?
    – ZJR
    Dec 6, 2012 at 0:12
  • 3
    That's at least part of why I'm asking the question. Besides, there's a healthy overlap between the two. Dec 6, 2012 at 0:18
  • 1
    Don't forget the earlier versions of Windows: 3.1, 98, etc... Microsoft really can't seem to decide...
    – Izkata
    Dec 6, 2012 at 2:52

5 Answers 5


A few of my guesses:

  • Numbers are harder to anthropomorphize - we've reached a point with our understanding of computers where we regularly refer to the computer as another being we regularly interact with. It's much easier to give this creature some kind of name vs. a number, especially given that numbers are often used to "dehumanize" things and make them impersonal -- so giving "inhuman" things a name should produce the opposite result.
  • Names are more memorable than numbers - A huge problem in dealing with all these different devices and builds is that remembering your given OS's version number is... difficult, especially for less dedicated users. Remembering the name of an OS means that people providing tech support can more quickly ID a product version and tailor their advice accordingly.
  • Names are easier to search for (and provide information on) - Google may have caused this trend inadvertently. Because we search using words as opposed to numbers for most things, there's a much higher noise-to-signal ratio when looking for Something Something 7 (because we also get stuff for Something Something 6, and Something Something 5, and...) vs. SSSSSSSomething. Yes, Google does have some safeguards for this problem, such as relevancy and recency of data, but names still work as a good shortcut, which leads to...
  • Named Versions are harder to get confused with than Numbered Versions -- You can imagine that confusing something like 10.3.2 and 10.3.3 is easy enough, because they sound very similar, but not so much with Ice Cream Sandwich vs. Jellybean, because they don't sound (or produce mental images of) the same things.

I'm not sure whose approach I like better at this point, Android's vs. Ubuntu's -- The reinforced alliteration in Ubuntu's system (e.g. Quantal Quetzal) makes it produce more unique names while reinforcing the numbering system, but at the risk of making the names harder to memorize. Android's system is better geared towards an easy visual representation (which makes it easier to remember), but a less unique name.

  • 7
    And don't forget: numbers aren't patent-able... Dec 6, 2012 at 7:17
  • 5
    @MarjanVenema or trademark-able (which is what I think you meant) Dec 6, 2012 at 8:21
  • @ratchetfreak: yes, you are right, that's what I meant. Dec 6, 2012 at 8:24
  • 8
    Contra arguments: Everybody can deduce, that version 7 was earlier than version 9, but 'Lion' and 'Leopard'? More so, if the numbers indicate years: Ubuntu 10.04 arrived in April 2010. But I can't remember which version had which name. Dec 6, 2012 at 14:15
  • 1
    Working on it... If you'd like to help me, I'd appreciate it. Dec 10, 2012 at 3:32

These are some UX factors: (human factors as well as marketing reasons)

  • Names are more "human friendly" than numbers. ("Windows Vista" feels friendlier than "Windows 3.0")
  • Names can be conveyed in more intuitive way than numbers (I just got Ice-cream Sandwich on my phone)
  • Names/Things can be something people feel passionate about. ("I like Lion" feels better than "I like 10.x.x"). This promotes indirect marketing.
  • Can be used intuitively in manuals, tutorials, guides etc., in more human way.

Some less important factors:

  • Names can convey creativity of company producing software
  • Names are more interesting and enjoyable than numbers. (e.g. Windows Millennium Edition)
  • Strong/Bizarre names can create instant identity.
  • How are Names more friendly than numbers? In which way is "Vista" friendly? Or "3.0" unfriendly (shouldn't 3.0 be Windows'95 and Vista something like 9?). Numbers have a natural ordering, which is more userfriendly than zillions of names. Note too, that names can be distracting as well (think about dogs). Dec 6, 2012 at 14:20
  • 2
    @userunknown: People are good at remembering names because from our child ages, names are used when talking about other people. And since we're social creatures, that happens a lot.
    – MSalters
    Dec 7, 2012 at 11:46
  • People are good at remembering numbers, and a lot of people don't remember names very well; many do, but not all. And numbers from a child age as well or even better. I can't remember a single Ubuntu release name and there are 14 or 15 since 05.04. Of course it is easy to remember all those numbers, which are ordered and in regular intervals - except for 6.06 which was late. Dec 7, 2012 at 12:03
  • 1
    @userunknown How are Names more friendly than numbers? 1. Names generally have some meaningful context associated with them, while number usually dont have. (windows 3.0 have no meaningful context associated, while Jelly Bean have.) 2. Also, since every software out there uses similar numbers scheme like 1.0, 4.1 etc. its difficult to remember the association. While names can be different serieses (Desserts, Animal families etc ). 3. Easy to remember. We use eclipse and MSOffice. Everybody remembers its eclipse "Juno", while hardly anybody remembers which office they have. Dec 7, 2012 at 19:25
  • @NitinJadhav: If you don't know the meaning of a number, you should revisit elementary school. 'Jelly Bean' has some meaning, but from a different context, not from software, which makes it totally arbitrary. What is the meaning of hardy heron in context of software? It's arbitrary. But 6.10 is the follower of 6.04 and predecessor of 7.04, and was released 2006 in month no. 10. And since many software uses similar schemes, it is more easy to remember - not harder. Dec 7, 2012 at 20:35

My best answer is that it's easier to market, especially since it exacerbates the difference between different versions. It only really works for products where the newer version is always better/improved over the previous version, and generally only where the product stands alone/doesn't have substantially different variations (e.g. Windows XP, which had totally separate releases for desktops, media centres and tablet PCs).

In the early releases of MacOS and Mac OS X, Apple didn't use the project codenames publicly. When Apple acquired NeXT and started working on a Unix-based MacOS, they began using codenames like "Yellow Box", "Blue Box", "Red Box" and "Rhapsody". That seemed to have been a deliberate decision to break from the purely numerical OS versions that had preceded it (System 6, System 7, System 7.5, MacOS 8, MacOS 8.1, MacOS 8.5, MacOS 9, MacOS 9.1, MacOS 9.2), and probably to hedge their bets a little bit after what had happened with Copland.

Once Mac OS X was released to the public, it was branded simply "Mac OS X" (at least after the Public Beta period). The codenames for the first two commercial releases of Mac OS X (Cheetah and Puma) were not used anywhere in their marketing. It wasn't until Mac OS X 10.2 (Jaguar) that Apple started to really use the codename in their marketing. While I don't have any real proof of the reasoning, as a user it made sense to me; Jaguar was the first Mac OS X release that many people felt was mature enough to migrate to from MacOS 9. It was fast, pretty and substantially more stable than its predecessor. It seemed Apple had really begun telling people about Jaguar by name since it let them reduce confusion (while only Puma was commercially available). By calling Puma "10.1" and Jaguar by its name, the two products where more easily distinguished.

Ask yourself; if you're running Mac OS X v10.3 and Apple releases v10.4, do you feel compelled to upgrade? That's not even a full number! Compare "Panther" to "Tiger", though, and it's easier for laypeople to distinguish.

There are other advantages too: as a software vendor you can give "names" to any release you like, and skip others. That allows you to present minor releases as major ones to the public. Look at Android's naming scheme:

  1. Android beta (no name)
  2. Android 1.0 (no name)
  3. Android 1.1 (no public name; called "Petit Four" internally)
  4. Android 1.5 (Cupcake)
  5. Android 1.6 (Donut)
  6. Android 2.0/2.1 (Eclair)
  7. Android 2.2 (Froyo)
  8. Android 2.3 (Gingerbread)
  9. Android 3 (Honeycomb)
  10. Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich)
  11. Android 4.1/4.2 (Jelly Bean)

By using names instead of numerals, Google has been able to bundle multiple point releases under one title (e.g. Eclair and Jelly Bean), and while some names like Gingerbread represented only a minor release over its predecessor, other names like Honeycomb or Ice Cream Sandwich represented full major releases. That flexibility is very useful for marketing.

It's worth mentioning that Windows has recently returned to using version numbers in their release names after a period of not doing so (2000, XP, Vista), but have only ever used their codename in one public release (Millennium; which became Windows Millennium Edition or Windows Me). The codenames, for other those other releases, incidentally, were Janus, Whistler and Longhorn.

One explanation for why they might choose not to use the project's codename is that it allows releases to share one brand even if the internal project teams were given vastly different names (e.g. Windows XP has 7 versions released under the "Windows XP" masthead, but their internal codenames were "Whistler", "Mantis", "Freestyle", "Harmony", "Symphony", "Emerald", and "Lonestar"). Those names also don't communicate any meaningful difference between versions, which makes them very difficult to communicate to customers.

  • 5
    Wait, you might have missed the details of what windows did with its version numbering schemes. Windows 2000 is NT 5.0; XP is NT 5.1; Vista is NT 6.0; Windows 7 is NT 6.1, (!!!) and Windows 8 is NT 6.2! (You get why they did that? I don't)
    – ZJR
    Dec 6, 2012 at 0:27
  • ... is this an admission that everyone is really just buying the same Windows over and over? Dec 6, 2012 at 0:38
  • 1
    @ZJR: AFAIK, those are the kernel version numbers, which is why Windows Server 2008 R2 is also NT 6.1. So Windows 7 isn't the same as NT 6.1, it just uses v6.1 of the NT kernel (and by that logic, the numbering actually makes sense). Mind you, it's sensible that MS doesn't expose that to the end-user on the packaging!
    – Kit Grose
    Dec 6, 2012 at 0:48

In fact they all have version numbers, OS names are generally called "codename". They are more friendly so their main purpose is to remember it.

Some version numbers:


They are using alphabets because it's easier to understand. Look in the case of android, each version is named after a food item and they are named in alphabetical order like cubcake, donuts, eclair, froyo, gingerbread, honeycomb, ice-cream sandwich, jelly bean. You can see how easy it is to be remembered like C, D, E, F, G, H, I.

  • But why is alphabetical order easier to understand than numerical order (C, D, E, F compared to 3, 4, 5, 6)?
    – Kit Grose
    Dec 7, 2012 at 1:23
  • If you have previously programming experience you better know why alphabetical order are chosen over numerical..
    – abhijit
    Dec 12, 2012 at 11:18
  • 1
    I presume you're referring to natural sort ordering. Is that really a scenario OS marketing people need to address? If anything, letters are harder to parse ordering from, because they serve a purpose other than ordering (why aren't people confused that XP came before Vista)?
    – Kit Grose
    Dec 12, 2012 at 13:20

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