Singin' The Beta Blues - InformationWeek

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6/8/2006
03:57 PM
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Singin' The Beta Blues

Once upon a time, having the word "beta" attached to the end of a product name meant the product wasn't ready for prime time. In fact, back when I was reviews editor for a print publication, I used to spend a lot of time on the phone making absolutely sure that the software sent by company reps was final code and not beta. Why? Because if reviewers found something wrong with the program, I didn't want the rep to call me back complaining that we had trashed an unfinished application. Now all that

Once upon a time, having the word "beta" attached to the end of a product name meant the product wasn't ready for prime time. In fact, back when I was reviews editor for a print publication, I used to spend a lot of time on the phone making absolutely sure that the software sent by company reps was final code and not beta. Why? Because if reviewers found something wrong with the program, I didn't want the rep to call me back complaining that we had trashed an unfinished application. Now all that has changed.In these days of nearly instant Web coverage, beta versions of products are routinely released to the public and immediately pounced on by reviewers and pundits (including ours). Even alpha releases are often announced with great fanfare and made available for download, although with a few additional warnings.

That's not necessarily bad. Final versions of software used to ship with so many bugs that users often felt like guinea pigs who had paid for the privilege. Now when problems pop up after several thousand people have tried a product, at least none of the beta testers have spent any money on it (although if it crashes your PC, you may not feel that charitable).

Microsoft has certainly learned this lesson. After it released Beta 2 of its Vista operating system to a limited number of reviewers and testers, it got into a brouhaha with Adobe over the existence of a "Save as PDF" feature, which will now go away. (As of this writing, Microsoft still plans to make it downloadable. Adobe objects. Stay tuned.) More recently, Redmond decided that its PC-to-PC Sync feature was problematic, so that feature is also being pulled. While one can't help wondering what other features in the Vista beta are due for the trash can, we should be grateful that all this happened before the final--and no doubt expensive--product actually shipped.

Another advantage to beta downloads is the way they help create communities of loyal users. When a smaller company makes its unfinished product available and actively solicits the help and advice of anyone interested, it can make for a really good relationship and a great deal of user loyalty. For example, online calendar 30 Boxes, which has been in beta since February 2006, has a lively forum in which developers asked what features were wanted in a to-do list--and got over 70 replies.

The downside is that it sometimes seems as though products are in beta forever. Google started offering use of its Gmail service to a limited usership back in April of 2004, and two years later the word "beta" is still attached to the product name. That's one heck of a beta test.

Whether for good or bad, the betas march on. On May 23, 2006, Microsoft made its latest version of Office available for download. This last Tuesday, Google released (to a limited number of users) the beta of its new Google Spreadsheet. On Wednesday, Microsoft opened Windows Vista to public beta testing. Hopefully, the release of these highly publicized products to the scrutiny of curious end users will mean that, when they finally ship, the products will be worth their weight in downloads.

What do you think? Are you an enthusiastic beta tester? Or are you tired of products that are in beta for over a year? Let us know.

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