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 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.
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.