Monday, January 19, 2009

The Death of Beta

Great post over at Gigaom today on the subject of using the term "Beta". No I'm no talking about the short lived Betamax video format from the 80's, but the tagline du jour over the last few years. In the article Blake Snow says that the term "Beta" "is dissipated and confusing" and I couldn't agree more.

First of all, before any of you blast me for being a hypocrite, I am the first to admit that we at Enomaly, like others, had used the term extensively over the last few years. More recently we decided to drop its use a move to a more traditional "code release" style which outlines a release candidate's number with an outline of its level of testing & Q/a.

I found this description of beta in the artlce very telling " In software speak, it means “mostly working, but still under test,” according to the Jargon File, the unofficial glossary of hacker slang. As the nerd dictionary so humorously puts it, “Beta releases are generally made to a group of lucky (or unlucky) customers” — either in-house (closed) or to the public (open)."

One thing the article misses is that "Beta" hasn't always been a marketing tagline. For those software developers in the crowd you may have heard of something called "The software release life cycle" The general idea is that software development is composed of different stages that describe the stability of a piece of software and the amount of development it requires before final release. Each major version of a product usually goes through a stage when new features are added, or the alpha stage; a stage when it is being actively debugged, or the beta stage; and finally a stage when all important bugs have been removed, or the stable stage. In it's earlier form Beta wasn't ment as a marketing ploy, yet more recently it has become just that, a kind of web2.0 gimic.

For us, Beta / Alpha / Pre Alpha, or whatever has become a method for us to describe our release candidates, early, late or in-between. As in any open source project, we have a wider list of users who request access to these early releases and help us for the most part find bugs. This is one of the best uses for a "beta" program. FREE Q/A.

The problem with a wider beta release is that most users don't draw a distinction between a beta or production ready release, the assumption is if you're making your application available, it's going to be fully tested and ready for production. On the flip side, most companies who use the term beta are in a sense saying exactly the opposite that, it's not ready but we'd like to you to try it anyway in an attempt to gain some market share or whatnot.

Amazon's use of Beta has been one of the best I've seen. Amazon's EC2 service was in beta for almost three years with numerous bugs and problems being spotted and potentially fixed by a large pool of beta tester. Amazon was able to gain a massive market share before removing the beta tagline late in 2008. They are no undoubtedly the biggest cloud computing infrastructure provider all thanks to their mastery of the "beta". Don't get me wrong, Google has also done a great job of using beta's, but they're already at an unfair advantage, so regardless of their beta tagline, gmail would probably have done just as well because of a broad Google user base.

So is beta dead? I doubt it, but hopefully for customer facing apps it is.

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