macOS 11 and Semantic Versioning

Last week at WWDC 2020, Apple announced macOS 11 (Big Sur). One of the questions that has come up in the MacAdmins Slack come up is whether macOS is really macOS 11 or macOS 10.16. Right now, we have nothing more to go by then what is in the betas which I won’t discuss, but it’s my understanding that Apple does indeed intend to go by macOS 11 in the end.

Many admins who write scripts that check for the OS version tend to rely on sw_vers -productVersion which would normally spit out a value such as 10.15.5. The first of the 3 digit groups has not changed in 20 years which means many scripts simply don’t check for that change. That leaves the last 2 digit groups which often get referred to as major and minor versions.

With macOS 11, it’s going to be important to check all 3 digit groups for backwards and forwards compatibility. We do have a point of reference on how these changes should go if we look at iOS, iPadOS, tvOS, and watchOS which have 3 digit versions.

This changes things a bit and I’m proposing that it’d be great if other IT admins used similar naming convention when referring to the the variable names representing each digit group should you need to split each value up.

I propose using the following semantic version guidance on how to refer to 3 digit group separated versions from

1. MAJOR version when you make incompatible API changes,
2. MINOR version when you add functionality in a backwards compatible manner, and
3. PATCH version when you make backwards compatible bug fixes.

Obviously, we cannot know for sure what next year may bring, but I’m hoping that Apple sticks to these changes and continues to increment the macOS major version as it has on its other platforms. This would mean that macOS 11 would then move on to macOS 12 by the end of 2021.

Presumably if the same behavior from iOS comes to macOS, the days of “supplemental updates” should be no more. If macOS 11.0.0 releases today and a “supplemental update” needs to come out a few days later then that’s really just a patch and the macOS version would increment from 11.0.0 to 11.0.1. However when macOS gets its minor OS releases that tend to come out every 6-8 weeks then we might go from say 11.1.0 to 11.2.0. That’s a simple change to track in most version comparison logic found in programs or scripts.

To highlight the issue a bit more clearly, a “supplemental update” would in the past would usually mean we’d go from macOS 10.15.5 to macOS 10.15.5 with the only way to know the difference being the build number which has always been incremented. Although not impossible, it’s a little less straight forward to compare a mix of alphanumeric characters vs integers. Here’s a really good blog post by Armin Briegel: that covers OS versioning and build numbers in more detail.

These are going to be very welcomed changes going forward because right now once macOS has hit the last minor update the only way to determine if it was on the latest version was to look at the build number of the OS.

However in shell scripting languages, it is much easier to just focus on splitting the version number into different groups since most admins will be familiar with the marketing version compared to dissecting the build numbers. Here is one way to do this going forward in a shell language:

Major Version: /usr/bin/sw_vers -productVersion | /usr/bin/cut -d . -f 1

Minor Version: /usr/bin/sw_vers -productVersion | /usr/bin/cut -d . -f 2

Patch Version: /usr/bin/sw_vers -productVersion | /usr/bin/cut -d . -f 3

Here’s a shell example on how this might be used:

[[ "$os_major_ver" -ge 11 || "$os_major_ver" -eq 10 && "$os_minor_ver" -gt 12 || "$os_major_ver" -eq 10 && "$os_minor_ver" -eq 12 && "$os_patch_ver" -ge 3 ]]

In this example, I’m testing for a condition that means either:

macOS major version is greater than or equal to 11
macOS major version equals 10 AND macOS minor version is greater than 12
macOS major version equals 10 AND macOS minor version equals 12 AND macOS patch version is greater than 3

In any case, this blog post is mostly going out as a reminder to admins that if you haven’t already heard of this coming change, I would suggest that you review any scripts that rely on checking the OS version as they may need some updating.

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