Should web applications offer versions?

Something that I love about desktop software is the choice to upgrade. When a new version of an application is released I’m usually notified the next time I launch it. If the developer was kind enough, I’ll even have some release notes to peruse so that I can read about what was updated, what has been fixed, etc. Then I can choose if I want to update the application or not.

You don’t have this choice with web applications. When an update is rolled out for any of the web applications you use, sure you might be notified of the update and even be told what has changed since your last visit, but you are not offered the choice to use this updated version because it is forced on you.

But progression is good, right? The new version is surely better than the last.

We have good examples of desktop applications gone awry between versions. In recent memory we have the upgrade from iMovie ’06 to iMovie ’08 in the new iLife ’08 suite of applications from Apple. The move from iMovie ’06 to ’08 was less an ‘upgrade’ and more ‘a whole new application’. For some, this came as an un-welcomed surprise. There are some things that iMovie ’06 was able to do that the new iMovie ’08 can not. This isn’t to say that iMovie ’08 isn’t a great application worthy of purchasing, just that as an “upgrade” it can be jarring when features and interface familiarity drop off the face-of-the-earth.

The best thing about the iMovie situation is that people can choose to upgrade. I know people that have both iMovie ’06 and iLife ’08 installed. Choice is good.

What if you woke up this morning and Gmail looked like Hotmail? The feature set, the interface, everything – was exactly like Hotmail. You’d probably think that the Gmail development team was pulling a fast one on you and you’d probably check your calendar to see if it was April 1st. But surely the Gmail team is smarter than this. They know that making huge changes to an application can alienate past users, so they just won’t do something like that. Or will they? Or have they?

Perhaps I’m ignorant of a good example of this happening in web applications. Maybe there is a service out there that, when making major upgrades, does somehow offer the user the choice to use the most up-to-date version. I’m not sure. But supposing this is something to think about how could it be done? Is it feasible? Or am I just too picky?