…and it’s still OK.
Today is the second day at the GTK hackfest, and we are discussing portals, interactions between applications, and security. That’s not really what this post is about.
Yesterday’s post got quite a lot of feedback. I had a number of discussions with various stakeholders on IRC, and got many nice comments on the post itself. People from a few different distributions, a couple of non-GNOME Gtk-based desktop environments, and a number of app authors have all weighed in positively.
The last post explained the new version policy that we hope to use for the future of Gtk. This post aims to explain some of the benefits of that system, and also why we considered, but ultimately rejected some other options.
The first major takeaway from the new system (and the part that people have been most enthusiastic about) is the fact that this gives many application authors and desktop environments something that they have been asking for for a long time: a version of Gtk that has the features of Gtk 3, but the stability of Gtk 2. Under the proposed scheme, that version of Gtk 3 will be here in about a year. Gtk version (let’s say) 3.26 will be permanently stable, with all of the nice new features that have been added to Gtk 3 over the last 5+ years.
The new system also means that we aim for doing this for our users once per two years from now on. Part of the problem with deciding between Gtk 3 and Gtk 2 was that Gtk 2 was just so old. If we keep the intended two-year cadence, then applications will never have to target a release of Gtk that is more than 18 months older than the most current release. This will reduce a lot of the pain with sticking with the stable version, which is why we anticipate that many more people will choose to do this.
The new arrangement also formalises what a lot of people have been complaining about for a while: Gtk 3 releases, although under an official policy of API compatibility, have often failed to completely live up to this promise. We have also been less than straightforward about exactly what the stability guarantees in Gtk 3 are, which has led to an awful lot of reasonable hesitation about uptake. The new system makes it clear that, during the first 18 months of releases, the Gtk 4 series is absolutely going to be unstable, and you should not target it. On the other hand, when it does become stable, this fact will be very clearly communicated, and you can trust that there will not be any changes of the sort that have hurt some of the users of Gtk 3.
In short: we get more freedom to make major changes during minor releases during the “early days” of a new major version. We advertise this fact clearly. The speed of development will increase. Once we are done breaking things, we very clearly advertise that “Gtk 4 is stable” (around Gtk 4.6). At this point, people know that they can port from Gtk 3 to Gtk 4 and get two years worth of new features with none of the fear about instability.
Most of the negative feedback on yesterday’s post came in the form of confusion about the seemingly complicated scheme that we have selected for the version numbers. Gtk 4.0 is unstable, and so is 4.2 and 4.4, but suddenly 4.6 is the stable version that everyone should use. Meanwhile, Gtk 5.0 is released, which means that everyone should (of course!) use Gtk 4.6… What’s going on here? Have you all lost your minds? Haven’t you people heard about semantic versioning?
This apparent oddness is something that we discussed in quite a lot of detail, and is also the part of the plan that we are probably most open to making changes to as we discuss it in the following months. I don’t think it will change very much though, and here is why:
One possibility that we discussed was to release Gtk 4.0 (gtk-4.0.pc) and tell people that this is the new stable API that they should use. This would not work well with our current situation. There are currently many hundreds of applications using Gtk 3 which would have to go through a mostly-pointless exercise of changing to “gtk-4.pc”, with almost no changes, except a different version. We wanted these people to just be able to continue using Gtk 3, which would suddenly become much more stable than it has been. This is pretty much exactly what everyone has been asking for, in fact.
Let’s say we ignored that and did Gtk 4.0 as the new stable release, anyway. We would want to start working on “Gtk 5” immediately. Where would that work go? What would the version numbers look like? Gtk 4.90-rc, progressing toward Gtk 5.0? We would never have any minor numbers except “.0” followed by alpha/RC numbers in the 90s. This also means that most releases in the “4” series (4.90, etc) would have “gtk-5.pc”. This approach was just too weird. At the end of the 4 cycle, it is reasonable to imagine that instead of 4.7, we might call it 4.99, and have a pkg-config file named “gtk-5.pc”, but we will never have a non-development version (non-odd minor number) with this inconsistency.
We also have to consider that GNOME releases will want to use the new features of Gtk, and that we need to have a versioning scheme that makes sense in context of GNOME. We need to have the Gtk minor releases that go along with each GNOME version. These releases will also need to receive micro releases to fix bugs in the same way that they always have.
Finally: we don’t believe that there is a huge amount of value in following every aspect of semantic versioning just for the sake of it. This sort of thing might seem interesting to users who are not developers, but if you are an actual application author who develops applications in Gtk, then it stands to reason that you probably know some basics about how Gtk works. Part of this knowledge will be understanding the versioning. In any case, if you look at our proposed system, you see that we still mostly follow semver, with only one exception: we allow for API breaks between early even-numbered minor versions. According to many of our critics, we were already kinda doing that anyway.
So that’s all for version numbers.
There is one other complaint that I encountered yesterday that I’d like to address. There is a perception that we have been bad about reviewing patches against Gtk 2.24, and that this lack of attention will mean that we will treat Gtk 3.26 (or whatever) in the same way. This is something that we discussed seriously at the hackfest, after it was raised. One simple thing that I can say is that Gtk 2 has actually seen an awful lot of attention. It has had 30 point releases, including one three months ago. It has had over 100 patches applied so far this year. We could still be doing better. A lot of this comes down to insufficient resources. At the same time, it’s pretty awkward to say this, when people are showing up with patches-in-hand, and we are simply not reviewing them. These people, with a demonstrated interest in bug-fixing stable releases could become new contributors to our project, working in an area where they are sorely needed. We are going to continue discussions about how we can improve our approach here.
tl;dr: The approach we have taken lets everyone make informed decisions about which Gtk version to use, based on public and official information. Today many people say “I’d like to use Gtk 3, but I don’t think it has stabilised enough yet.” Fair enough — we heard you. Soon, Gtk 3 will be much more stable, at which point it will be safer to upgrade. At the same time, we are not going to pretend that Gtk 4.0 is stable at all, or that Gtk 4.2 will look anything like it. When Gtk 4 is stable, we will tell you.