A long winding road out of beta

Summary:Is a two-year beta really a test? Bloggers, developers argue over whether companies like Google stretch the beta concept too far.

Once considered the final stage of software development, beta versions are taking on a life of their own, as companies tinker endlessly with their products in public.

Underscoring the trend, Google co-founder Larry Page on Wednesday told investors that the beta, or test, stage for its products would last as long as its engineers expected to make major changes to them--a process that has already taken years, in some cases.

"It's kind of an arbitrary thing," Page said. "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."

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What's new:
Beta tests are getting longer, less restricted and more common, as companies tinker endlessly with their products in public.

Bottom line:
As beta cycles sprawl out into years-long affairs, some people are complaining that a crucial line between prime time and half-baked is being blurred.

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Google's beta time frames represent one of the most dramatic expansions yet for a process that until recently was used as an opportunity to discover fatal flaws and make final touch-ups in advance of a product's full public release.

The beta version, named for the second letter of the Greek alphabet, typically refers to the second stage of software testing. Traditionally distributed to a limited group of testers, it follows the alpha version, which is tested in the lab.

But in recent years, as complex applications reach their audience through Web sites rather than as shrink-wrapped or downloaded software titles, beta tests are getting longer, less restricted and more common.

"I have noticed it more frequently in the past three years," said Catarina Fake, co-founder and marketing chief for online photo site Flickr, which observed the first anniversary of its beta stage on Thursday. "Three years ago, I don't have a lot of recollection of beta being used on Web sites."

"We could take beta off all of our products tomorrow, and we wouldn't actually have accomplished anything."
--Larry Page, co-founder, Google

As Page acknowledged, Google, too, is known for the quantity and longevity of its betas. Google Catalogs? Beta since 2001. Google News? Beta since 2002. Froogle? Just as old.

Recent changes to Google's Gmail Web mail site roused speculation that its beta phase might be coming to an end.

As beta cycles at Google and elsewhere sprawl out into years-long affairs, some people are complaining that a crucial line between prime time and half-baked is being blurred.

"I feel like 'beta' has become a questionable term," said Mary Hodder, a technology consultant. "Google and Flickr just leave it on their sites for years, so it cues us to think, beta, no big deal."

Hodder sparked a controversy in the blogging community when she wrote about her experience losing data while using a paid RSS (Really Simple Syndication) aggregator that was in beta. She didn't know it was a test version, she wrote in her blog, because she couldn't imagine that a company would charge for a piece of beta software.

"When we go to a site and purchase something in beta, the word has lost its meaning," Hodder said.

Fake defended Flickr's decision to offer a paid beta service, saying consumers wanting more storage capacity demanded it and that it was keeping the company running while it labored to put the finishing touches on the service. In addition to a free account, the company offers extra storage for $59.95 per year.

"When we go to a site and purchase something in beta, the word has lost its meaning."
--Mary Hodder, technology consultant

Fake said the length of the Flickr test was inadvertent. The photo service came out of what was originally supposed to be a multiplayer game site. In the summer, when the company honed its focus on photo storage and sharing, the site became so popular it had to refocus on building up its computing and network resources and de-emphasize work on features it hoped to add to the service.

"We put out iterations of our product design really quickly," Fake said. "We'll put something out there, see what happens, see what activity happens around various features, then constantly work and refine it by interacting with the users of the software. Nothing teaches you how your software actually works better than actual use."

Some of Google's test versions--Gmail and the social networking site Orkut--built in invitation-only systems in order to limit growth during the beta.

In the world of downloadable software, high-profile disasters haunt the memories of those who took the beta label off too soon.

Netscape Communications, for example, came under intense criticism after releasing Netscape 6, which was based on pre-version 1.0 builds by the Mozilla.org open-source development group.

"Netscape 6 still plays like beta software," one critic said at the time. "The results I've had using it seem to indicate that it's just not quite finished. I'd have much rather seen them wait until the Mozilla project had their 1.0 version complete instead of rushing it out the door."

One veteran of the browser wars recalled the original Mosaic browser--Netscape 6's distantly related ancestor--as "an endless beta cycle."

"One classic way to get caught in an endless beta cycle is if the development team doesn't have the discipline to freeze features," said Jon Mittelhauser, who co-authored Mosaic and was a founding member of Netscape. "They can keep trying to squeeze one more little 'safe' feature into the product, which inevitably has some side effect--bugs somewhere else--and starts the vicious cycle all over. This often happens with the 'best' developers because they don't want to be sitting around fixing little bugs; they want to be implementing major features."

Topics: Browser

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