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Thursday, November 6, 2008

What is Beyond Beta?

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I was lucky enough to know someone who had a pre-release copy of a new version of an operating system that was planning on taking over the personal computing world. This was something called Windows and the release they showed me was 3.1 which promised huge improvements in usability and stability over 3.0. It was a rarity in those days, to get a glimpse into software that was "not-quite-finished" but was close enough to get a feeling about it. It was also fun to be on the inside of cutting edge technology. They called it Beta, indicating that is was not yet ready for sale, but was more advanced than Alpha. Beta was usually limited to the employees of the company producing the software and a select group of others.

Fast foreword and the Beta versions of more programs started getting wider distribution and the exclusivity started to wear off in some cases. The wider distribution provided the developers more free testers to identify more bugs and hopefully fix them earlier in the process and reduce the support burden for the company and in increase customer satisfaction. I think the jury is still out on whether the quality of software has gone up as a result of larger scale Beta releases.

Then one day, about a decade ago, Google started a new web-based email application they called GMail. It was strictly an invitation-only program. By accepting an invitation, you acknowledged that this was a Beta program and you may experience crashes, downtime, missing mail and could do nothing about it other than report the error to the Google team and hope they fixed it quickly.

As Google started expanding their Beta program, existing users were given a finite amount of invitations that could be emailed to people so they could give GMail a try. These invitations were extremely sought after to the point that some people were even seen listing them for sale at online auction sites.

Eventually, GMail became accepted as a mainstream provider of free webmail, but the word Beta still remained on the site. Downtime is minimal and I have yet to notice a missed message sending or receiving (but how would I know if I missed an incoming message?).

They have applied their formidable search power to the GMail interface and allow you to keep an astronomical amount of email (over 7 GB for my account) which you can search nearly instantly. Some of the features that GMail uses are revolutionary and were a bit challenging to get used to. The concept of using labels instead of folders was a paradigm shift, but once you accept it, you can become very productive with it.

So where are we now? The label Beta is still attached to GMail, but there are a huge number of people using GMail on a regular basis. Now, Google has introduced "Labs". Labs are what used to be called Beta features. Some are really useful and eventually make their way into the mail configuration as a regular (albeit Beta) feature. Others will remain in Labs indefinitely and maybe some will be dropped altogether.

So first there was Beta. Now Beta is the standard for some apps and in the case of GMail, beyond Beta is "Labs". What is next? Will companies expect users to put together the design specifications for a new product, find programmers to start writing it and then "allow" people to use it as a Beta release?

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