Allison Lortie has provoked a lot of comment with her blog post on a new proposal for how GTK is versioned. Here's some more context from the discussion at the GTK hackfest that prompted that proposal: there's actually quite a close analogy in how new Debian versions are developed.
The problem we're trying to address here is the two sides of a trade-off:
- Without new development, a library (or an OS) can't go anywhere new
- New development sometimes breaks existing applications
Historically, GTK has aimed to keep compatible within a major version, where major versions are rather far apart (GTK 1 in 1998, GTK 2 in 2002, GTK 3 in 2011, GTK 4 somewhere in the future). Meanwhile, fixing bugs, improving performance and introducing new features sometimes results in major changes behind the scenes. In an ideal world, these behind-the-scenes changes would never break applications; however, the world isn't ideal. (The Debian analogy here is that as much as we aspire to having the upgrade from one stable release to the next not break anything at all, I don't think we've ever achieved that in practice - we still ask users to read the release notes, even though ideally that wouldn't be necessary.)
In particular, the perceived cost of doing a proper ABI break (a fully parallel-installable GTK 4) means there's a strong temptation to make changes that don't actually remove or change C symbols, but are clearly an ABI break, in the sense that an application that previously worked and was considered correct no longer works. A prominent recent example is the theming changes in GTK 3.20: the ABI in terms of functions available didn't change, but what happens when you call those functions changed in an incompatible way. This makes GTK hard to rely on for applications outside the GNOME release cycle, which is a problem that needs to be fixed (without stopping development from continuing).
The goal of the plan we discussed today is to decouple the latest branch of development, which moves fast and sometimes breaks API, from the API-stable branches, which only get bug fixes. This model should look quite familiar to Debian contributors, because it's a lot like the way we release Debian and Ubuntu.
In Debian, at any given time we have a development branch (testing/unstable) - currently "stretch", the future Debian 9. We also have some stable branches, of which the most recent are Debian 8 "jessie" and Debian 7 "wheezy". Different users of Debian have different trade-offs that lead them to choose one or the other of these. Users who value stability and want to avoid unexpected changes, even at a cost in terms of features and fixes for non-critical bugs, choose to use a stable release, preferably the most recent; they only need to change what they run on top of Debian for OS API changes (for instance webapps, local scripts, or the way they interact with the GUI) approximately every 2 years, or perhaps less often than that with the Debian-LTS project supporting non-current stable releases. Meanwhile, users who value the latest versions and are willing to work with a "moving target" as a result choose to use testing/unstable.
The GTK analogy here is really quite close. In the new versioning model, library users who value stability over new things would prefer to use a stable-branch, ideally the latest; library users who want the latest features, the latest bug-fixes and the latest new bugs would use the branch that's the current focus of development. In practice we expect that the latter would be mostly GNOME projects. There's been some discussion at the hackfest about how often we'd have a new stable-branch: the fastest rate that's been considered is a stable-branch every 2 years, similar to Ubuntu LTS and Debian, but there's no consensus yet on whether they will be that frequent in practice.
How many stable versions of GTK would end up shipped in Debian depends on how rapidly projects move from "old-stable" to "new-stable" upstream, how much those projects' Debian maintainers are willing to patch them to move between branches, and how many versions the release team will tolerate. Once we reach a steady state, I'd hope that we might have 1 or 2 stable-branched versions active at a time, packaged as separate parallel-installable source packages (a lot like how we handle Qt). GTK 2 might well stay around as an additional active version just from historical inertia. The stable versions are intended to be fully parallel-installable, just like the situation with GTK 1.2, GTK 2 and GTK 3 or with the major versions of Qt.
For the "current development" version, I'd anticipate that we'd probably only ship one source package, and do ABI transitions for one version active at a time, a lot like how we deal with libgnome-desktop and the evolution-data-server family of libraries. Those versions would have parallel-installable runtime libraries but non-parallel-installable development files, again similar to libgnome-desktop.
At the risk of stretching the Debian/Ubuntu analogy too far, the intermediate "current development" GTK releases that would accompany a GNOME release are like Ubuntu's non-LTS suites: they're more up to date than the fully stable releases (Ubuntu LTS, which has a release schedule similar to Debian stable), but less stable and not supported for as long.
Hopefully this plan can meet both of its goals: minimize breakage for applications, while not holding back the development of new APIs.