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Microsoft Rethinks the Beta Process

Beta testing has been the cornerstone of the software development process for Microsoft and most other commercial software makers for as long as they've been writing software. But if certain powers-that-be in Redmond, Wash., have their way, betas may soon be a thing of the past for Microsoft, its partners and its customers.

What's behind the shift?

Beta builds are predictable milestones by which external and internal testers have measured their progress toward the delivery of final code. Betas are typically few and far between, and feedback on them tends to be late and sometimes lame. But they are nonetheless a known quantity, and one that software developers, OEM partners and customers of all sizes rely on in gauging when and how to support a new product.

Open source turned the traditional software development paradigm on its head. In the open-source world, testers receive frequent builds of products under development. Their recommendations and suggestions typically find their way more quickly into developing products. And the developer community is considered as important to writing quality code as are the "experts" shepherding the process.

Until fairly recently, Microsoft championed the way it "made the sausage" as the best way. But in the last year or so, there's been a noticeable change in the company's rhetoric. Top Microsoft brass have been wondering aloud whether big-bang betas are the best way to develop and test software. Might there be a better alternative?

Microsoft's Engineering Excellence unit, headed by 20-year company veteran Jon DeVaan, is overseeing a project to re-engineer the way software is developed inside Microsoft. DeVaan, a member of Microsoft's central Business Leadership Team, manages the engineering standards used to create Microsoft's software products.

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