With so many programs supposedly stuck in 'codevelopment' for anything from a few months to five years, has this phase lost its purpose? Danny Bradbury investigates why so much software is still in limbo
Google officially took its Google News service out of beta last week but save for the disappearance of the small word "beta" from the home page, few would have noticed the difference. The service had been in beta since its launch in April 2002; many desktop software products go through an entire revision (from 1.0 to 2.0 and beyond) in less time.
Google News isn't the only service that stretched the idea of the beta test to the point where it is almost meaningless. The line between beta and non-beta has blurred thanks to a combination of sly marketing and a change in the way software is used.
When companies spoke of beta tests in the past, everyone knew what they meant. "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," says Gary Barnett, research director at research company Ovum. "It presumed a certain level of testing." Usually, beta programs would be limited to a core group of power users who could be trusted to report bugs intelligently, and run for a defined time period.
The first company to break that use was arguably Netscape in March 1995 when it offered version 1.1 of its Navigator browser for download by anyone - while warning it was a "public beta enabling users to provider feedback... on features and functionality" ahead of the full release "due in April". At least it offered an end date.
These days, the term is used much more loosely. The Flickr photo site is still in beta nearly two years after its April 2004 launch. Windows Live Local launched last July but is still tagged with the beta label. But perhaps the honour of longest beta test goes to Google Groups, which launched in 2001 and is still in beta. Many online service providers, including AOL, Skype and Yahoo, are offering beta services with no set time period and an unrestricted user base.
Does this more liberal use of the term mean that our attitudes to software are changing, and if so, why? "The meaning of the term has been hijacked by marketing," says Barnett. 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. (Apple sued three people who distributed betas of its 10.4 operating system via BitTorrent in December 2004.)
Equally, if beta tests last longer and are open to everyone, companies such as Google can squeeze more marketing value out of them. But the reasons go deeper. A beta culture is emerging across consumer technology services, not just in online applications like MSN Live Local and Google's Gmail, but also in sites like the Wikipedia online encylopedia. Its creator, Jimmy Wales, has defended attacks on its accuracy by calling it a work in progress, and the trusted, frozen version, "Wikipedia 1.0", he was promising as far back as 2004 hasn't appeared yet.
Even traditional publishers are getting in on the act. Technology publishing firm O'Reilly has launched Rough Cuts, a service that lets participants read online versions of books as they are written and suggest changes that can be incorporated into the final - printed - version. Is this a trend?
Put the words "online" and "trend" together nowadays and you know the term "Web 2.0" will crop up somewhere. O'Reilly's chief, Tim O'Reilly, associates "perpetual betas" with the Web 2.0 concept, which he defines as a series of developments loosely tied together. One of these developments is more online participation; the more people contribute to something, the better it gets.
Putting out books in beta is a way of harnessing readers' expertise, says Sara Winge, from O'Reilly. "When the focus shifted from packaged software to services, the service isn't completed, it's a process. There's an expectation that it's going to change."
Tim O'Reilly argues that a defining characteristic of this woolly movement is the end of the software release cycle. Software becomes constantly upgraded, often on a daily or hourly basis, he says, and the users of the software become codevelopers.
Compare yesteryear's websites to services such as Google Maps. The former were click-and-wait HTML sites that were often painful to use. The latter feels more like traditional desktop software. People will begin doing more with these online applications, and storing more of their data there. Take Google's Gmail - another long-term beta product - as an example.
If the features and the code underlying online services are always changing, what does that mean for software quality and for continuity of service? "We're telling users that this is a beta product and that you have to understand we are refining this product, so to that extent we can't provide guarantees," says Andy Ku, Google's UK marketing manager for consumer product.
He argues that the company first trials the product in an alpha phase with internal staff and an invitation-only group of external testers to weed out bugs. But Google has already had to fix security flaws in its Gmail beta that allowed attackers to steal passwords and read email. Clearly, "beta" still means "use at your own risk".
Google protects itself by abdicating all responsibility in its Gmail terms and conditions, but so do providers of non-beta web applications, including Microsoft, with its rival Hotmail service. "I don't think we need to change the service level agreements if the product has already been very strong as a beta product," says Ku.
So when an online service moves from beta to non-beta, nothing changes from the users' perspective. There are no additional guarantees, and the code underlying the service doesn't freeze; companies can change or add components whenever they feel like it. Unless the software developer removes the word "beta" from the site, who would even know?
Ku says that services move out of beta when certain criteria are met, but won't reveal them. Keeping "codevelopers" in the dark doesn't sound much like Web 2.0 to us. And where is the feedback option -so important for any beta program - on the Gmail home page?
The term "beta" will also collapse into irrelevance in downloadable software, predicts Chris Messina, who calls himself director of experience at Flock, a startup developing an open source browser. Users of Microsoft products know that when software products move out of beta, users are flooded with security and quality patches in short order, meaning that version 1.0 isn't so much a magic milestone as just another point in a continual cycle of development.
"I see gradients of validity where for my mom I might wait until Flock gets to 0.8 before I install it for her," Messina says. "For friends who I like I'll give them the development version that won't crash the system, and then for people I don't like they can have the nightly builds. So I think we'll have three tracks."
That attitude contrasts with firms such as Microsoft and Apple which still - at least publicly - put a lot of stock in 1.0 releases of downloadable software. Will we see a gradual move towards a more fluid release cycle in downloadable software as we have done in web applications? If it happens, it will start with open source developers, many of whom are already developing in such a fluid way and releasing source code builds so quickly that the beta concept is rapidly losing meaning.
But there's a trade-off. The benefit of this trend is that our software will more closely mirror our needs as they change because developers can respond more quickly to our feedback, unfettered by code and feature freezes. The danger is that it plunges users into uncertainty. We won't be able to point to a single version of a piece of software and call it good, but will have to make do with uncertainty over varying degrees of readiness in features that also change constantly.
Still, in being vague and loosely defined, the Web 2.0 concept and the software underpinning it will at least have something in common.