Monday, April 19, 2010

"Beta"

It seems like everything is in Beta nowadays. It used to be a foreign term to me until I learned that it meant "the product has most of the main features, but is not yet complete" according to Prothermer's article on just this topic. But now people seem to just tag it on at the end. Example? Google. For the longest time, every Google product was in Beta except for the search engine. Gmail was in beta for god knows how long. I can remember back when Gmail was just taking off (back when you had to get a text invite from a friend to join) it was in beta and then checking back months later, it was still in beta. Gmail became the most popular e-mail service out there for everyday people, so much so that people naturally defaulted to thinking that your Gmail account was your default e-mail account. (I would know. This was when I was using Inbox.com as my main.)

That's just the main example. It really just seems like it's a little sticker that they stick on the product, like "New and improved!" or "Now with half the fat!", except it's for nerdy stuff. The best quote I can think of on the topic is joners of EeeUser Forum's signature: "Beta does not mean 'better', it means 'not ready'."

The oddest thing for me is mostly companies like Google, because Google is one of the leading forces (actually, probably the leading force) on the internet, and doesn't it seem kind of strange that so many of its services were in beta for so long? And it's not just in beta and barely any people are allowed to use it (or are at least discouraged to use it) which is most often the case, but it's more like they're saying "Here's our product! Use it everyday! Oh, by the way, it's beta," which I don't think should be the case. It should be "It's in beta, but here's our product."

The only other thing I can think of for Google and other companies to keep the beta tag on their products is to protect themselves against crashes and malfunctions. If all of Gmail crashes and billions of e-mails are lost, Google could just shrug and say "Hey, it's in beta."


The thing that annoys me the most is that there's no significant change between beta and the "real" release for Google. Eventually they just seem to "drop" the beta with the exact same product, maybe a few more features, but just not beta anymore.

And beyond that, it just "dilutes the the term" (a phrase I stole from a commenter from this blog). Imagine if Google started using "Alpha" to define all their products, and then "pre-Alpha". Then when people go to try other products that are pre-Alpha, they'll think they are ok because Google's products work just fine.

If Google likes using Beta to protect their posteriors legally, suck it up, big G. I would still love you if my Gmail crashed, or if this blog got deleted (I would be the only one to know, anyway), or if any of your other services crashed for good, so no need to protect yourselves with a little term like Beta.
If Google likes using Beta to proclaim that their product is "is never a final product" (another phrase I stole from said blog), then just STOP. Anyone who's using any of Google's services knows that they are constantly updating stuff. I don't see that as it being in Beta, but as Google making a great thing greater.
If Google likes using Beta because it sounds trendy and edgy and it has appeal, then REALLY STOP. Google, you are a leader of the internet. As much as I love how funny you can be with April fools jokes and other such nonsense, don't sink to trying to promote stuff by adding fluffy phrases like Apple. (You can read all about why I think Steve Jobs is a jerk for calling his iPad a "magical and revolutionary product.)

I just don't like abusing the term. Beta should be reserved for its purpose: for products that are almost finished but need to be further tested (hence the term 'beta testers). Google, you're creative, if you want you can make a term specifically for your products, like "geta", and use that. But don't dilute "beta" by throwing it on the end of all your product names.

[UPDATE]
I guess I'll start a running list of current "Beta" products. I just noticed one more that reminded me that Google isn't the only one who beta-izes everything.
  • X-marks: Previously Foxmarks, one of the most popular Firefox addons (and now for IE and Chrome as well) which has been around for almost 5 years is still in beta. [as of 4-20-10]
[UPDATE 5-4-10]
Okay, to further emphasize my point, here's the history of Google services and how long they were/are in beta. (Of course, some of them aren't all that long, but you get the idea. Oh, it's also a work in progress.)
  • Google Mail: 4/04-7/09 [5 years & 3 months....wow]
  • Google Chrome: 9/08-12/08 [3 months, nice and short]
  • Google Earth: 6/05-????
  • Picasa: 7/04-10/08 [4 years & 3 months]
  • Google Sketchup: ?????
  • Google Talk: 8/05-7/09 [3 years & 11 months]
  • Google Docs: 2/07-7/09 [2 years & 5 months]
  • Google Calendar: 4/06-7/09 [2 years & 3 months]
  • Google Buzz: NEVER BETA [Released straight to stable]
  • Google News: 3/02-1/06 [3 years & 10 months]
  • Google Reader: 10/05-9/07 [1 year & 11 months]
  • Google Voice: 3/09-7/09 [4 months]
  • iGoogle: 5/05-????
  • Orkut: 1/04-Current [Going on 6.5 years]
  • Knol: 7/08-Current [Going on 1.5 years]
  • Feedburner: NEVER BETA [Bought stable]
  • Google Wave: 9/09-Current
  • Google Chrome OS: 11/09-Current
  • Google Image Search: 7/01?-????
  • Google Product Search: 12/02-Current [7 years & 5 months]
  • Google Scholar: 10/04-Current [Going on 5.5 years]
  • Google Video: 1/05-6/09 [~4 years]
  • Google Trends: 5/06-???
  • Google Health: 5/08-Current [Going on 2 years]
  • Picnik: NEVER BETA [Bought stable]
  • Google Sites: 2/08-7/09 [1 year & 6 months]
  • Google Blogger: 8/06-12/06 [4 months]
  • Google Desktop: 10/04-6/06 [1 year & 1 month]
  • Google Maps: 2/05-10/05 [6 months]
  • Google Finance: 3/06-6/09 
And to top if off, here's a timeline, though it gets kinda messy with the ones that are still in beta, and ones that were in beta so short the name actually can't fit (which I think is only Chrome, but you can probably tell). [It's pretty big, so click the thumbnail to see the full version.]

From Diary of an Aspiring Nerd

Still in Beta,
-Bry

PS - You probably noticed that the title of this blog is "Diary of an Aspiring Nerd beta", and think I am a hypocrite. But I actually threw that on (1) as satirical homage to what this post is talking about, and (2) for aesthetic reasons (I wanted to add some color, and make it less.....liney....) Also, you might notice that some of my programs are in Beta (currently Startup Saver, Dropper, and maybe Skeys), and they've been that way for some time. I justify this because (A) I don't keep releasing new features but leave it in beta [like Google does], (B) I haven't really worked on any of them past their beta release, and (C) They actually are buggy and deserve the beta title. Yes, I might be slightly hypocritical throwing "beta" on the end of some because I'm afraid of getting a ton of e-mails about bugs, but in my mind, there's a huge difference between a 19 year old programming in a scripting language onto a site that probably gets ~50 visitors a day to Google, the largest force on the internet.

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