“BETA” is now a Marketing Gimmick

I wonder why it is that software and services have now started badging
themselves as “BETA” after a significant change or rewrite. “BETA” was
previously a term applied to software and services which was in a controlled
state of testing by a controlled audience or test-base. Major software like
Microsoft Windows often had a significant and highly sought after BETA test
program, which helped Microsoft control access to the software and thereby
control support requests, feedback and bug reports.

Now, however, it seems it forms part of a Marketing campaign. Web sites, in
particular, are guilty of adding “BETA” to new features/rewritten sites after
the initial development is complete. What signal is this giving to end users? It
sure is sexy and cool (if you’re a bit geeky) to get your hands on new tech
before everyone else, but when the Beta stage comes de rigeur, it significantly
weakens the whole idea of the Beta phase of software Quality Assurance.

In my mind, Beta doesn’t mean “sexy and cool”, it means “unstable, buggy and
requires a professional touch”. It is fundamentally not ready for users. So
launching sites like

Number 10’s new web site as Beta is not in the spirit of Beta software. It is forcing users to use software that would previously not have been released. It amounts to lazy testing. All the money the Labour government throws at IT projects and they couldn’t establish a sufficient testing programme before releasing software to users. What “Beta” means now is “Well, it’s sexy and cool, and if it goes wrong we don’t really care”. If they cared, the “Beta” programme would have been optional. Microsoft’s Download and Support sites are going through a similar Beta programme, but their release has been much more controlled – asking users if they wanted to participate.

I’m not a fan of regular users getting their hands on WIndows 7, either.
Windows 7 is a massive software installation with a huge potential to go wrong.
“Regular” users really should not be part of this Beta programme, certainly not
at this early stage. Just because the download servers crashed for users
downloading WIndows 7 Beta, doesn’t mean Ballmer was right to release the
software to the general public (though I guess he is keen for users to see
post-Vista improvements). As the current build (7000 at time of writing) is
going to expire in August anyway, it will leave a lot of people with a
potentially unusable machine. It’s fine allowing wider access to Beta programmes
closer to launch, at least then these users could just jump on to the upgrade
path. I suspect a lot of “techie friends” are going to be asked to reinstall a
previous Windows install in August! As a member of the MSDN community (an
excellent subscription service that provides access to much of Microsoft’s
portfolio for your own development and testing programmes), I can obtain a copy
of Windows 7 and I am able to test and submit meaningful test cases and
scenarios to Microsoft. How is a regular user able to do this?

So the Marketeers have stolen a term for established test programmes
previously used to control potentially unstable software distribution. Where
does this leave the whole software Quality Assurance process? If “Beta” is now
just “cool and free” copies of software such as Windows (at least for a for
short time) how can I as a software developer control access to my own software
in such testing programmes and instill the idea that the “Beta” label does
actually mean it isn’t yet suitable for release. (Microsoft and others use “RTM”
(Released to Manufacturing) for that, a much better opportunity for the general
public to jump on and try it out). I have two projects on the go at the moment.
At work I am working on an Outlook Toolbar which is currently in a Beta phase, but within our own organisation. We’re very happy with its performance, so we’re going to go with a new stage “Elective Sunrise Edition”, which will be released to specific users with platforms that would highlight any further issues and does what it says on the tin. Our users must “opt in” to the programme and it will be clear that it is pre-release software. “Elective Sunrise Edition” is also
suitably pretentious to satisfy the Marketeer in everyone! After a couple of
weeks, we’ll go “Gold” with a correctly versioned product. At home, my WPF
Twitter Client will go out for Beta Testing (by nature of my own hardware, I can
only test it on a limited number of platforms) but I will be putting code in
there to prevent onward distribution of the software in an uncontrolled manner.
Those users I choose will surely be special, because I will have targetted them
for specific testing reasons such as platform, frequency of use, etc.

For me, “Beta” is not sexy and nor is it a result of impatience on the part
of the Marketing Department to release software before it is ready, or of
developers who are a little too lazy with their Quality Assurance processes, it
means “potentially unstable software, use at own risk“!

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