Has beta testing gone too far?

Has beta testing gone too far?

Beta logoDo you ever get the feeling that developers are sometimes stretching the truth somewhat when they claim their software is still in “beta phase”, in some cases, years after it was originally released? Are users just being rather sneakily used by developers as continual guinea pigs for their products with little for them to show for it in return?

There is no strict time limit for software in the beta testing but it’s generally agreed that it’s a limited time period where the program is open to a closed number of users or the wider public in order for them to report any bugs or problems that need fixing before the final version is released. However, as Tim O’Reilly argues, this concept is becoming increasingly stretched. So much so in fact, that a new term, “Perpetual beta”, is a more accurate term to describe the status of many newly released programs:

Users must be treated as co-developers, in a reflection of open source development practices (even if the software in question is unlikely to be released under an open source license.) The open source dictum, “release early and release often” in fact has morphed into an even more radical position, “the perpetual beta,” in which the product is developed in the open, with new features slipstreamed in on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis. It’s no accident that services such as Gmail, Google Maps, Flickr, del.icio.us, and the like may be expected to bear a “Beta” logo for years at a time.

As O’Reilly points out, it is often web based apps and especially newly emerging Web 2.0 applications that are being developed under this status. But this rather vague definition of beta wasn’t always like this. As Gary Barnett of developers Ovum explains in The Guardian, the grounds of beta testing were clearly understood:

It was a deal you did with a vendor. They would give you access to something for free, and a very low upgrade fee for the final version, in return for you being patient with them and taking time to report on any issues.

Nowadays it seems, there’s not much benefit to dedicated beta testers at all and Barnett claims that this is due to the grubby hands of marketing which has “hijacked” the term for its own agenda:

Beta has become synonymous with new, shiny software that people want to try. Being cut out of a beta test can seem frustrating, particularly with the internet and technologies such as BitTorrent making it so easy to get hold of those in-beta products that are being kept secret. Equally, if beta tests last longer and are open to everyone, companies such as Google can squeeze more marketing value out of them.

However, in an interview with ZDNet, Google Co-Founder Larry Page claims that there is no ulterior motive his company’s frequent usage of perpetual beta testing phases saying it is simply an “arbitrary” decision:

It’s kind of an arbitrary thing. We could take beta off all of our products tomorrow, and we wouldn’t actually have accomplished anything…If it’s on there for five years because we think we’re going to make major changes for five years, that’s fine. It’s really a messaging and branding thing.

Arbitrary or crafty marketing move, I think it’s time that beta testing was at least restored to part of its original status. At the moment, it seems that developers are getting something for nothing. Ok, by keeping it in beta perpetually, they are continually refining their product which benefits the end user but this is something they should be doing anyway with subsequent releases. For those dedicated software testers that spend hours and hours testing software and sending their feedback, surely they deserve at least a bit more credit or reward from the developers they benefit from. And at the same time, by offering something to testers, developers will surely get more detailed and through feedback so their products will genuinely be better.

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