Mary Hodder beats us to the punch on something we’ve been thinking about a lot lately: It seems that every new web application now sports a ‘beta’ tagline. Furthermore, it seems to stay that way for an indeterminable amount of time. This begs the question whether the ‘beta’ term has lost its definition.
As she astutely notes: “...blaming users for misunderstanding the definition of ‘beta’ seems unrealistic, and while developers can make users ‘bad’ for doing this, developers actually are the leaders here. They have the control and power to name and define. Developers have confused this issue, and users should ask them to get this aspect of software clear in the marketplace. Blame Google, et al., for causing problems like this. For now, users have been trained by the aggregate of developers to think ‘beta’ doesn’t really mean anything.”
We’ve been involved the development of more than 10 desktop applications and more than 25 web applications. In our experience, there was usually a public beta phase of the development. This phase lasted for an explicitly stated, fixed period of time and was intended for the purpose of collecting feedback from a limited number of users (large or small). Public beta phases also came with a disclaimer that the product could break or not work perfectly, so do not use it for mission-critical tasks. Thus the need for a conversation with users to help refine the product.
Regardless, our expectation (as developers and customers) is that following the public beta phase, there is a stable release of the product, which is usually marked with a number (1.0) and a price for upgrading to this release. This no longer seems to apply. Indeed, a Feb. 20th post on the Ludicorp weblog on the launch of flickr, their online photo-sharing community site says: “Flickr is now in public release 1. There will be two further phases, public releases 2 and 3, and then Flickr will be officially out of beta, as of this summer.” It’s now December, and it’s still in beta.
As customers, we would never shell out dollars for software with the ‘beta’ moniker. Can you imagine: “Get Windows XP Beta for $300” or “Adobe Photoshop CS Beta 2 for only $950.” First, it would be like paying for an untested, unreliable product. Second, you are essentially paying to be a guinea pig for developers. No thanks.
That said, we did purchase the beta of flickr pro, which is a special version of flickr with unlimited space and permanent archiving functionality, at a 30 percent discount. However, this offer is riddled with questions. The offer says: “Buy before the end of beta and save! Purchase an annual pro account while Flickr is still in beta and get 30% off the regular annual price” but in a footnote says, “We reserve the right to adjust the final pricing prior to the version 1.0 launch. A final launch date has not been set.” In the end, you might only get a 5 percent discount. Who’s to say?
Our motivations for purchasing flicker pro:
a) Get the unlimited space. We like to share hi-res photos with family and friends.
b) Perhaps our suggestions on product development might garner more attention than those who are using the free version.
c) Contribute dollars to the success of a product we like.
Still, the idea that they are 3-6 months behind on a 1.0 stable release is troublesome. The same goes for Google News. Why does a product that is more than two years old need a beta tagline? What exactly are they trying to imply? Psycholinguists might call this “drift” in the language. In our mind, it’s an uncertainty that is counter to any positive marketing efforts or expectation-setting that might be gained in the use of the term.
Ross Mayfield provides a thoughtful post on the beta debate, culminating with: “The only constant in software development is change, and it’s not just developers that want to embrace change. Users want software that improves over time and to be a part of conversations on where it is and where it’s going. This overlap in preferences, as well as the desire for a community that surrounds a tool to connect, provide an opportunity for relationships and incentives that are stronger than branding—where we embrace change together.”
As Mary and Ross suggest, the language needs revision, or at the very least clarification.
• Track on Technorati
• For beta or for worse II, Jason Fried at 37signals takes a look at sites running in perpetual beta.
• Google News: Beta Not Make Money, Wired ran this story in September, explaining why Google News is still in beta.
So while other online publishers like Yahoo News and MSNBC earn tens of millions of dollars in revenue each year and continue to grow, Google News remains in beta mode — three years after it launched — long after most of the bugs have been excised.
The reason: The minute Google News runs paid advertising of any sort it could face a torrent of cease-and-desist letters from the legal departments of newspapers, which would argue that “fair use” doesn’t cover lifting headlines and lead paragraphs verbatim from their articles. Other publishers might simply block users originating from Google News, effectively snuffing it out.