News.com's Paul Festa has a story that shines the spotlight on the extended beta periods that service offerings from companies like Google and Flickr are going through. The story quotes technology consultant Mary Hodder as saying "I feel like 'beta' has become a questionable term.....Google and Flickr just leave it on their
sites for years, so it cues us to think, beta, no big deal."
The story takes me back to a day in the early 1990s when I was the director of PC Week's testing labs (now eWeek Labs) and a group of us lab rats were sitting in a conference room when then lab technical director Larry Seltzer said something that stuck with me ever since: "All software is beta." I don't remember the entire conversation, but I'm positive the context had something to do with the fact that, in the man-years of testing and using of software that we as a group had under our belts, the only bug-free program we ever encountered was probably "Hello, World." (is the comma a bug?) I'm not even sure whether Selzter knew, more than a decade later, how true his disillusioning statement would continue to prove to be.
Somewhere in the back of my head, there has always been this hope that software could be bug free. It's wishful thinking I guess. Today, I've yet to regularly use a piece of software (application or operating system), a Web site, or hardware that is bug-free. Indeed, all software is beta.
So, what then, should be the guidelines for usage of the word beta? Should it be used at all? When it is, how should we interpret it? While no product has proven itself to be bug-free, removal of the beta label used to mean two things. First, the vendor is going to charge you for use of the software. Second, you can officially get technical support. And by technical support, I mean real technical support -- the kind where you get a human on the other end of a phone line instead of the untrustworthy medium of e-mail that gives new meaning to the phrase "disappeared into the ether." Even Amazon's Web site, where I'm unable to find the words "technical support" (the closest is Account Assistance, but what if you don't have an account?) says:
Web sites just shove in our face something that has always been true of software: whether the relevant product is labeled as beta or not, support is something of an enigma. Historically, the only difference between pre-release and post-release bugs in software was that in the latter case, we parted with our money to have the privilege of getting support for them. But no vendor ever guaranteed their software to be bug free and that users of it would never lose their work or their data (or worse, that we'd be satisfied with the outcome of support calls regarding bugs -- even calls that we paid extra for). What's different about Web-based software, paid or not, is that the operators of it feel less obligated to offer traditional support. Somehow, the rules have changed (and like sheep, we've allowed them to). But the fact that all software (including Web sites) is beta hasn't. It has always been that way, and it always will.