Has 'beta' lost its meaning?
About 11 years ago (please ignore the rapidly aging "10 Years" banner overhead), a very bright young man put together a hosting service for new software, and a news feed to help publicize it. I'll spare you the part where I praise my boss for his wisdom and insight and great sense of timing, although all of that's certainly true.
In 1998, the term "beta" was generally used to mean "new software;" and so "Beta News" was interpreted quite correctly to mean "new software news." Some enterprising person may be able to dig up something I published elsewhere during that time where I complained about what I perceived as the misappropriation of "beta" to simply mean "new."
You see, ten years earlier, as a professional consultant, one of my various roles was as a professional beta tester -- something you rarely see any more. And in 1988, the beta stage of product development meant something very explicit: When a software project entered a stage of development where the program was a "complete loop" -- all of its planned components had been built, compiled, and at least operational -- then its developer could release the code outside its own shop, in limited quantities, often to consultants like me capable and qualified to give it a proper shakedown.
There was a big, bold borderline between software that was ready for public consumption and software that wasn't yet fully debugged, whose shakedown had not yet begun.
In an earlier era, "beta" meant "not ready for prime time."
But by the time Nate Mook began hosting the one place on the Web where readers could find all the newest software, manufacturers had begun the process of delivering "public betas" -- previews of coming attractions that early adopters would be eager to try out first, even if it didn't all work right. There was some fun associated with the "risk" aspect of all of this...but let's be honest, the other principal attraction in all of this was the fact that public betas were typically free.
To this day, we still receive some complaints about our Fileforum hosting commercial software, in notices that try to remind us that commercial software "isn't beta."
As manufacturers (especially the smaller ones and the startups) came to realize mainly through watching BetaNews (back then with a capital "N"), there was a deeper and perhaps even more important service being fulfilled at that time: In an era when either the operating system did not do everything for its user or didn't purport to do everything, small developers made their livings (and sometimes fortunes) by building just the right product to fill the gap.
Let's face it, there are a number of functions that Windows XP, along with the add-ons Microsoft makes for it, either does not do or does not do well. So Spybot Search & Destroy and ZoneAlarm and IrfanView and Total Commander and Ad-Aware and Zoom Player and K-Lite and Real Alternative codecs, all became key components of the expert XP user's toolkit. They filled the gaps that Microsoft left open, and performed the jobs (oftentimes better) that some folks expected XP to perform -- and still do.
For most of our publication's existence, our #1 job has been to provide users with the newest software that fills the gaps and patches the holes and overcomes the annoyances. For our readers, "beta" has meant better than the original manufacturer's idea of "ready for prime time."
The day after Labor Day marks the beginning of my fourth year here at Betanews (now with the trimmed "n"); and in this period, I have seen more corrections and advisories and outright condemnations about my supposed misinterpretation of what beta is than at any other time.
Now, I was "beta" when most folks outside of Greece associated the term with a sorority or a vitamin or a breakfast cereal. But what has startled me most in recent months has been the source of my corrections: It's shifting now, and it's the manufacturers that are offering them most often.
The problem is, none of their explanations correlate with one another. Not only do the different components of the software ecosystem have different definitions for the term, but as time wears on, each of the members of those various components fail to agree with each other.
With Mozilla, for instance, there is an earnest attempt to maintain a distinction between software that the general public is expected to test ("beta") and software that Mozilla contributors are still testing privately ("alpha"). Still, since Mozilla is a purely open source organization, the alpha editions are just as public as the beta editions. And as a result, the release of new alphas is often just as publicized as the release of new betas.
With Microsoft, the term has been used selectively by marketers to refer to some class of software being distributed to the public as a preview. However, the bifurcation and subsequent layering in and around that class, coupled with the fact that different divisions of the company develop software in different ways, has led to an inconsistency that has itself become a consistent feature of Microsoft development.
Office 2010, for example, is now being offered as a "Technical Preview" to limited testers, who are reminded that this is "not a beta." While advice and bug reports are informally solicited from these members, even now there's an expectation among users of the Preview release that the functionality isn't close to what other testers are seeing in the Beta releases. Those are private, mind you -- more private than the Previews, but less private than the internal builds, which are sometimes themselves described as "betas." Meanwhile, Windows 7 has finished transcending its public beta cycle (which was not termed a "technical preview"); and Exchange 2010 is in the midst of its "public beta" which has been described to me as a "preview."
Microsoft's marketers often speak to me about Windows 7 as being a more feature-rich, complete product than XP, and continually remind me to pay attention to that aspect of it. Media Player plays more videos, Internet Explorer includes more functions, Security Essentials goes after more malware. As it was described to be once by someone who forgot whom he was speaking to, if you use the new Windows right, "you don't need all these betas."
Next: And then there's Google...