Caveat beta, Google fans

Google's innovations are popular and effective. So why does the company find it so hard to pronounce them finished?

It turns out that “Don't Do Evil” isn't quite holy enough. Following on from last month's security worries over Google Desktop Search, this week sees a curious flaw surface in Gmail, Google's must-have email system. Why worry? It's not a big problem: small amounts of other people's email surfaces at random if you type just the wrong thing. It's fixed now. And anyway, both products are in beta. You knew the risks when you signed up.

Google is taking the art of the public beta to new levels. Its popular Google News service was launched in beta form over two years ago: it's still there. Even Microsoft at its most paranoid has never left a release candidate of a product out in limbo for that long -- perhaps the Googleplex could do with some dull old project managers to leaven the visionaries.

Once upon a time, beta had a precise meaning: this software works up to a point but is not good enough to sell. There is a certain test pilot cachet in using the stuff: sure, you'll crash a few times but you're at the edge. When you're over that macho nonsense, though, beta is as unwelcome in software as it would be in kitchen appliances were kettle makers silly enough to try it.

Google's revenue model means there is little pressure on the company to finish things off. Quite the opposite: targeted advertising benefits from endless tinkering, and as long as the users aren't inconvenienced enough to abandon a particular service, where's the problem in never quite finishing off the rough bits?

It shows considerable disrespect, for one thing. Part of the deal with public betas is that the users accept some problems in return for helping create the finished product, but if that product is never finished then why bother? It also lets Google off the hook when bad things happen: it never said the software was finished. It just wanted you to use it. That's no way to build a reputation for effective cleverness. It implies that beta is an excuse for shirking responsibility, rather than a shakedown period that makes the final product better.

Google is getting so many things right, it should beware the arrogance implicit in endless beta programmes. In the words of Steve Jobs, real artists ship.

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