Beta Is Dead

29 Comments

Beta, as it pertains to web sites, has seen better days. Not long ago, saying the word as part of your web development cycle could help land venture capital even faster than claiming “community,” “paradigm shift” or “disruptive technology.” Now, the term is dissipated and confusing.

While the specific origin of its use is unknown, beta as a tagline was popularized by a Google (s goog) with the release of Google News in 2002, and later, Gmail in 2004. From there, startups quickly followed suit. By 2006, it seemed like every new web site was “in beta.”

When confronted about the phenomenon, Google co-founder Larry Page told investors, “It’s really a messaging and branding thing. If it’s on [Google News and Gmail] for five years, that’s fine.” Google News unceremoniously left beta a year later. Gmail, which is more reliable than most non-beta software, has yet to do so.

The definitions

In general terms, beta as an adjective means “the second of any series,” according to Random House Dictionary. 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).

At some point, Google expanded the definition to include continual improvement. “Rather than the packaged, stagnant software of decades past, we’re moving to a world of regular updates and constant feature refinement,” a company spokesperson says. “In beta, improvements are rolled out as they are developed.”

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired and author of “The Long Tail,” agrees. “I’m a big fan of ‘release early and often,’ so if that’s what you mean by beta, then I’m as keen as ever,” he says. He acknowledges, however, that things have gotten somewhat out of hand, dismissing some betas as “Web 2.0 silliness” — a few web startups that left beta on their site description “longer than they should have.”

Jason Fried, CEO of web application developer 37 Signals, thinks some companies have used beta as an excuse to publish unplanned or undesirable software. “It’s a trend that never should have gotten started, and I’m surprised it’s still around,” he says. “I think it’s confusing and generally sends a bad message to call something beta in public.”

Public vs. private

Nearly everyone would agree that the testing process used to certify software is necessary (at the very least internally). But Fried raises an important question: Should betas ever be open to the public?

Anderson says yes. “I know I don’t have all the best ideas, so by releasing an early version of work, I enjoy the benefit of other people’s suggestions,” he says. Anderson makes free use of the term himself, referring to his blog as books in beta. “Call it stress-testing, peer-review, or wisdom of the crowd, but every time I’ve tossed out something half-baked, people have helped bake it better.”

Fried, however, disagrees. “I don’t believe in public betas,” he says bluntly. “If you are inviting the public to use something, it’s not a beta — it’s a release. Calling something a public beta is like saying ‘We don’t take responsibility if it’s not any good.'”

Seemingly aware of this, Google launched Gmail Labs in June, an optional selection of unproven add-ons to Gmail, which, of course, is still in beta. Confused? Let’s ask Google.

“Gmail Labs is our public testing ground for experimental Gmail features designed by Google engineers that may not be ready for prime time,” a spokesperson says. “It gives us a way to try out different ideas and refine them based on feedback.” A noble undertaking, yes. But Gmail Labs undermines the point of having Gmail proper in beta in the first place.

Of all the definitions describing beta, “frequently updated” technically isn’t one of them, even if Google and others say it is. Obviously, web sites need to constantly evolve, like any competitive product. Consumers expect this. But there’s no evidence suggesting that such evolution should be represented by the term beta, even if marketers wanted it to.

As the king of search said not long ago, it’s really just “a branding thing.” And a dead one at that. Service — not the second letter of the Greek alphabet — tells consumers how often they can expect updates. So while beta as a tagline may be dead, improvements can still live on.

29 Comments

Scott

The term “beta” as used by the software industry implies to users that a product is not well tested and, if it should fail, the vendor may not recover the user’s experience (data, production, etc). Only in an indirect way does it have to do with the frequency of updating products. I suspect (but certainly don’t know) that Google continues to label Gmail as “beta” for liability purposes. It’s softer to say that than to tell folks they’re stupid for relying on Gmail for one’s livelihood.

Kimber Lockhart

Let’s not forget an important reason many web apps launch in beta. You get TWO press rounds. One for launching into Beta and one for coming out of Beta.

Jeff Darcy

Google wasn’t the first to popularize the term. “Beta” had been in common usage, well known not only to developers but to users as well, for a decade before Google was even heard of. Contrary to a belief that seems common among the faddicts, there was a computing world before 1998.

Michael Fine

As a leading expert in beta testing, I think the statement “beta is dead” is grossly exaggerated. The process of beta testing has never died and its form has not really changed that significantly. However, the perception and use of the word “beta” has evolved a lot as with all words, has developed important changes in connotation.

I have been conducting beta tests for close to 20 years and certainly things are getting much more fluid with the use and application of the word. Google has definitely played haphazardly with the term and used it as an excuse to give people unsupported products. However, the process of doing this is hardly original or uncommon. It’s just more visible.

It is wrong to assume that just because something is constantly evolving that is in a constant state of beta. The transition from beta to release are clearly defined. This article would have been much clearer and more accurate to say ‘beta – as employed by Google – is dead.”

Beta testing is very much alive for web sites, software and hardware. In fact, more and more companies are looking for ways to differentiate their products. Beta testing continues to be used as an effective method for fast moving technology companies to keep in touch with their customer.

Michael Fine

As a leading expert in beta testing, I think the statement “beta is dead” is grossly exaggerated. The process of beta testing has never died and its form has not really changed that significantly. However, the perception and use of the word “beta” has evolved a lot as with all words, has developed important changes in connotation.

I have been conducting beta tests for close to 20 years and certainly things are getting much more fluid with the use and application of the word. Google has definitely played haphazardly with the term and used it as an excuse to give people unsupported products. However, the process of doing this is hardly original or uncommon. It’s just more visible.

It is wrong to assume that just because something is constantly evolving that is in a constant state of beta. The transition from beta to release are clearly defined. This article would have been much clearer and more accurate to say ‘beta – as employed by Google – is dead.”

Beta testing is very much alive for web sites, software and hardware. In fact, more and more companies are looking for ways to differentiate their products. Beta testing continues to be used as an effective method for fast moving technology companies to keep in touch with their customer and.

Taylor

Well said! I’ve been annoyed by the term “beta” for 3 years now and its time we put it to rest.

Blake Snow

I believe you’re confusing “popularized” with “invented,” Addam.

Addam

Popularized by Google? My god you guys need to get out more. Beta is a term that has been used to describe pre-release software for decades. Google? Please, this is the last thing they deserve credit for. Next you’ll tell me that they invented PPC and search…

Sparkbliss dot com

BETA at this time has a negative connotation. There is seemingly no reason why you can’t bring a online product to market and state the release date somewhere on the site which serves the same “beta” stamp purpose. However, I did not follow my advice with Sparkbliss.

Jon

I have never used the word “beta” to describe any of the software my company builds, there will always be bugs and when they are found, they are fixed… live or otherwise. If somebody cannot find any problems, that means it’s ready to launch… otherwise, it isn’t.

Jon
http://DreamClue.com …get the message!

Ted Rheingold

Yes, I agree 100%. Websites, by their nature, are never done, and thus always in beta, and thus never in beta.

BUT, beta also has a legal definition which explains why the moniker stays on some big company websites for so long. Beta legally means buyer beware, feel free to test, but know that this is not flawless software. Gmail could lose all your mail and you’d have no legal recourse, because it’s beta.

So beta is with us for the duration, no matter how irrelevant the moniker actually is.

Domains

“Rather than the packaged, stagnant software of decades past, we’re moving to a world of regular updates and constant feature refinement”, This paragraph should be credited to Microsoft. The disk space daily/regular updates just for one program (Windows Vista) has taken on my system is more than what all other programs combined together has taken. Indeed, Beta microsoft!

Jeff

Ya, a website is contently changing by adding new features, fixing bugs. A site can basically be in beta for its entire lifetime. Seems like it’s overused a bit.

Blackie

beta is handy for most because they (google) don’t really have to offer any tech support on it. With beta comes the admission that its a work in progress. Web 2.0s saturated the term so much that the actual concept is becoming meaningless.

SanderBerkouwer

Beta in its official form may be dead, but a new form of beta is emerging: the hype. A form where a the public feels special when invited or getting hands on an invitation in some way to a beta product or service, even bragging to friends. A form where the public is nurtured into not fearing beta products or services, which can be used

Adam Singer

Yes beta is dead – that is why I was able to successful parody it for a marketing campaign last year. It’s been a dead concept for ages. Nearly all web products are works in progress. It’s kind of a meaningless term.

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