All version control systems have to solve the same fundamental problem: how will the system allow users to share information, but prevent them from accidentally stepping on each other's feet? It's all too easy for users to accidentally overwrite each other's changes in the repository.
Consider this scenario: suppose we have two co-workers, Harry and Sally. They each decide to edit the same repository file at the same time. If Harry saves his changes to the repository first, then it's possible that (a few moments later) Sally could accidentally overwrite them with her own new version of the file. While Harry's version of the file won't be lost forever (because the system remembers every change), any changes Harry made won't be present in Sally's newer version of the file, because she never saw Harry's changes to begin with. Harry's work is still effectively lost - or at least missing from the latest version of the file - and probably by accident. This is definitely a situation we want to avoid!
Many version control systems use a lock-modify-unlock model to address this problem, which is a very simple solution. In such a system, the repository allows only one person to change a file at a time. First Harry must lock the file before he can begin making changes to it. Locking a file is a lot like borrowing a book from the library; if Harry has locked a file, then Sally cannot make any changes to it. If she tries to lock the file, the repository will deny the request. All she can do is read the file, and wait for Harry to finish his changes and release his lock. After Harry unlocks the file, his turn is over, and now Sally can take her turn by locking and editing.
The problem with the lock-modify-unlock model is that it's a bit restrictive, and often becomes a roadblock for users:
Locking may cause administrative problems. Sometimes Harry will lock a file and then forget about it. Meanwhile, because Sally is still waiting to edit the file, her hands are tied. And then Harry goes on vacation. Now Sally has to get an administrator to release Harry's lock. The situation ends up causing a lot of unnecessary delay and wasted time.
Locking may cause unnecessary serialization. What if Harry is editing the beginning of a text file, and Sally simply wants to edit the end of the same file? These changes don't overlap at all. They could easily edit the file simultaneously, and no great harm would come, assuming the changes were properly merged together. There's no need for them to take turns in this situation.
Locking may create a false sense of security. Pretend that Harry locks and edits file A, while Sally simultaneously locks and edits file B. But suppose that A and B depend on one another, and the changes made to each are semantically incompatible. Suddenly A and B don't work together anymore. The locking system was powerless to prevent the problem - yet it somehow provided a sense of false security. It's easy for Harry and Sally to imagine that by locking files, each is beginning a safe, insulated task, and thus inhibits them from discussing their incompatible changes early on.
Subversion, CVS, and other version control systems use a copy-modify-merge model as an alternative to locking. In this model, each user's client reads the repository and creates a personal working copy of the file or project. Users then work in parallel, modifying their private copies. Finally, the private copies are merged together into a new, final version. The version control system often assists with the merging, but ultimately a human being is responsible for making it happen correctly.
Here's an example. Say that Harry and Sally each create
working copies of the same project, copied from the
repository. They work concurrently, and make changes to the
A within their copies. Sally saves her changes to
the repository first. When Harry attempts to save his changes
later, the repository informs him that his file A is
out-of-date. In other words, that file
A in the repository has somehow changed since he last copied
it. So Harry asks his client to merge
any new changes from the repository into his working copy of
file A. Chances are that Sally's changes don't overlap with
his own; so once he has both sets of changes integrated, he
saves his working copy back to the repository.
But what if Sally's changes do overlap with Harry's changes? What then? This situation is called a conflict, and it's usually not much of a problem. When Harry asks his client to merge the latest repository changes into his working copy, his copy of file A is somehow flagged as being in a state of conflict: he'll be able to see both sets of conflicting changes, and manually choose between them. Note that software can't automatically resolve conflicts; only humans are capable of understanding and making the necessary intelligent choices. Once Harry has manually resolved the overlapping changes (perhaps by discussing the conflict with Sally!), he can safely save the merged file back to the repository.
The copy-modify-merge model may sound a bit chaotic, but in practice, it runs extremely smoothly. Users can work in parallel, never waiting for one another. When they work on the same files, it turns out that most of their concurrent changes don't overlap at all; conflicts are infrequent. And the amount of time it takes to resolve conflicts is far less than the time lost by a locking system.
In the end, it all comes down to one critical factor: user communication. When users communicate poorly, both syntactic and semantic conflicts increase. No system can force users to communicate perfectly, and no system can detect semantic conflicts. So there's no point in being lulled into a false promise that a locking system will somehow prevent conflicts; in practice, locking seems to inhibit productivity more than anything else.
There is one common situation where the lock-modify-unlock model comes out better, and that is where you have unmergeable files. For example if your repository contains some graphic images, and two people change the image at the same time, there is no way for those changes to be merged together. Either Harry or Sally will lose their changes.
Subversion uses the copy-modify-merge solution by default, and in many cases this is all you will ever need. However, as of Version 1.2, Subversion also supports file locking, so if you have unmergeable files, or if you are simply forced into a locking policy by management, Subversion will still provide the features you need.