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  • Beta Blues

    Posted on August 22nd, 2010 Mike No comments

    Once upon a time, software companies (and some hardware companies, for that matter) had development programs. These development programs were divided into phases – early development, more advanced development, product testing, and finally product release. These phases were often referred to as alpha, beta, release candidate, and release. They all were controlled in order to make them more directly useful to the developers, with the early alpha code being distributed only to the developers themselves as well as some users for early opinions and testing, the beta code to a select group of users for more direct feedback under simulated “real” conditions, and the release candidate to a slightly wider group for testing under actual conditions with the understanding that bugs might be encountered along the way. Over time, this proved to be a good methodology for developing complex software without costing customers time, money, or embarassment, but giving the developers feedback that can really only be obtained from experienced users outside the development lab, in actual conditions. All participants in these programs (alpha, beta, and release candidate) were required to sign NDA’s (Non Disclosure Agreements) in order to keep them as a control group and not light the fires of expectation under the non-participating users. In this way, new features could be tested and perfected prior to product announcements and trade show unveilings. In recent years, however, the term “beta” has come to mean something very different. In the case of some companies, it’s come to mean “the most recent version,” even though it’s technically not in general release. What this means is that it becomes a “use at your own risk” situation, in which the software or hardware company can issue it with the stipulation that it should not be used for production work, allowing them to disclaim any responsibility for problems the users might or might not encounter. In addition, it can be changed at any time, sometimes in ways that “break” existing projects done on earlier versions. What used to be a controlled test group becomes a free for all in which the company gets back little useful feedback, but gains the ability to say “it’s not our fault” whenever anyone has a problem. Some companies in our industry now use this as their regular working methodology, with little to no products ever reaching a stage of official “release.” Red is an obvious example of this, releasing things like Redcine X and other tools that stay in a seemingly perpetual state of beta. They even make available versions of some tools that they clearly label “alpha,” thus putting code in user’s hands that is almost guaranteed to have problems. But other companies have been somewhat equal opportunity offenders, and they’re not all small and independent. Microsoft now offers “public beta previews” of upcoming Windows operating system updates, which essentially means anyone can have it and nobody can claim it doesn’t work. Adobe has done the same thing with some products like Lightroom. And in many cases, users even pay for the privilege.

    Beta doesn’t mean early release. It never did, and it doesn’t now. It means an unfinished product, with bugs both known and unknown. It means a product that is not quite ready for the general user audience, regardless of how much they might want it to be otherwise. Having products that are kept in a state of perpetual beta to me is a bit of a cop out by the companies that employ such practices, because it exempts them from any legal responsibility to either finish, support, or guarantee anything. The fact that some companies seem to have users who eat this up on the assumption that they’re special because the company gives them access to things they shouldn’t really have doesn’t change the definition of what beta is and why it’s designated as such. Beta is beta. Release is release. The difference to the user may not always be that apparent, but when a company puts a statement on the license agreement that says, in effect, that this is beta code and should not be used in a commercial environment, they’re doing that for a reason. In the case of those who seem to want to redefine what “beta” means, it’s a very self serving reason. Those who want to ignore that can do so, but when a product never even gets to a release version, one should think about why that is.

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