Windows 8 Consumer Preview due February 29: why it's not called beta

Windows 8 Consumer Preview due February 29: why it's not called beta

Summary: The Windows 8 Consumer Preview will be available for download on February 29. Why isn't it called a beta? Blame Google. And Apple. And Microsoft. Especially Microsoft.

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TOPICS: Windows, Microsoft
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On February 29, Microsoft will hold a special, invitation-only event in Barcelona. Presumably, at the same time they will flip a switch that gives the general public access to a major milestone in the Windows 8 development process.

In a bygone era, this version might have been labeled “beta.” Indeed, when Windows boss Steven Sinofsky laid out the Windows 8 roadmap last September, that’s the word he used for this milestone. But Microsoft has chosen instead to label this release “Consumer Preview.”

Why the name change? Blame Google. And Apple. And Microsoft. Especially Microsoft.

They’re literally not making betas like they used to. Originally, beta was the phase of software development when a product was feature complete but needed more testing and tweaking to root out bugs. That was usually the stage at which some small subgroup of the developer’s customers got to try the product, usually for free.

A decade ago, Microsoft was liberal with its use of the beta label. Windows XP, developed in 2000 and 2001, had a half-dozen pre-beta releases, two formal betas (with multiple interim builds), and two release candidates. These were distributed to a worldwide corps of enthusiasts and corporate partners. Features came and went through the long beta cycle, and the general picture was one of organized chaos.

For the Windows Vista development cycle in 2006, Microsoft actually pitched its “beta experience” with the tagline, “The pleasure of testing,” accompanied by a picture of a crash-test dummy. Including the word "crash" doesn't exactly send a comforting message for potential testers, does it?

Still, these pre-releases were generally open strictly to techies, with a clear warning attached: This stuff is unfinished. It might eat your data. You have been warned.

And then, on April 1, 2004, Google launched Gmail with the beta label attached. A year later, it was still in beta. It was one of many Google services that was still officially categorized as beta at the time, and a ZDNet story originally published in 2005 (A long winding road out of beta) documented the thinking behind Google’s decision:

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."

That “if it’s on there for five years” part sounded like hyperbole at the time, but it turned out to be literally true with Gmail, which had its beta label officially removed in July 2009. Sam Diaz noted the impact in another ZDNet post:

Clearly, a product like GMail was being used by a mainstream audience while it still had the beta label on it—allowing the company to deflect blame for software bugs while allowing users to not only use the product but also to invite their friends, as well. That tells me—and others—that the beta label wasn’t so much a “hands-off” for regular users but rather a “don’t get mad at us” asterisk.

The final straw came last fall, when Apple released its iPhone 4S. Its signature feature, Siri, has played a starring role in TV commercials that never once mention that the feature has a “beta” label on it.

You can’t ask for a better example of a “don’t get mad at us” asterisk than this. As my colleague Larry Dignan observed last November:

When confronted with an Apple beta, I’m not quite sure how to react — and I bet a lot of consumers are slightly befuddled too. Apple rarely does public betas—at least ones that are touted as the primary feature for a hot-selling iPhone. Is Siri’s beta tag a crutch when few people view it as a test run?

In the end, this widespread use of the beta label on products used by large numbers of people has muddled its meaning beyond repair. Slapping that word on this milestone of Windows 8 would send mixed messages. Old-school Windows beta testers would be demanding to know where to file bug reports, while the real target market might be scared off by the “don’t get mad at us” asterisk.

Instead, the formal label communicates two messages. First, it’s for consumers, not for IT pros and definitely not (just) for enthusiasts. Second, and more important, it’s a preview, not a test version. Microsoft is encouraging real people to download and use this release. If you do, you’ll get an advance peek at the feature-complete-but-still-unfinished Windows 8, and in exchange Microsoft will get a broad swath of telemetry data from a population that is, in theory, representative of its customer base.

The download will, of course, include the appropriate disclaimers. But you can bet it won’t include the word beta.

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Topics: Windows, Microsoft

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53 comments
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  • Ubuntu is the same way

    At least at one point, haven't kept up on milestones, there were at least 2 betas per release. Nobody cared much.
    Michael Alan Goff
  • RE: Windows 8 Consumer Preview announced: why it's not called beta

    Google has abuse the word "beta" so much it's turned into a "get out of jail-free card".
    Jeff Kibuule
    • RE: Windows 8 Consumer Preview announced: why it's not called beta

      @dagamer34 - one of the benefits of classing your app/service as Beta is that it doesn't have to comply with your corporate information security, retention and privacy policies.

      This allows a beta service provider, for example, to publish and operate their service and should something go wrong they can hold up their hands and say "sorry, we lost your data, but you were warned that the system was a beta".

      It's essentially a free get out of schtuck card.
      bitcrazed
      • RE: Windows 8 Consumer Preview announced: why it's not called beta

        @bitcrazed

        "one of the benefits of classing your app/service as Beta is that it doesn't have to comply with your corporate information security, retention and privacy policies."

        If your corporate policies are such that you have to find ways around them, then your business has some real policy problems. Or you have some real ethical problems. Either way, I disagree with the practice of using the "beta" label just to skirt business policy.

        Betas should be a way of testing the product before release, not a way around corporate policy.
        CobraA1
      • RE: Windows 8 Consumer Preview announced: why it's not called beta

        @CobraA1 -

        "Betas should be a way of testing the product before release, not a way around corporate policy. "

        I couldn't agree more.
        bitcrazed
  • RE: Windows 8 Consumer Preview announced: why it's not called beta

    It's not called a beta because it really isn't a beta. The feedback will have almost no impact on the final product. See my blog entry on this from a couple of months ago: http://hal2020.com/2011/12/07/update-can-windows-8windows-phone-8-ship-in-june-2012/
    EXMSDE
  • RE: Windows 8 Consumer Preview announced: why it's not called beta

    It's not called a beta because it really isn't a beta. The feedback will have almost no impact on the final product. See my blog entry on this from a couple of months ago: http://hal2020.com/2011/12/07/update-can-windows-8windows-phone-8-ship-in-june-2012/
    EXMSDE
    • Yes, that's what I said here...

      @EXMSDE

      As I wrote: "Second, and more important, it???s a preview, not a test version." Microsoft wants telemetry data, not bug reports.
      Ed Bott
      • RE: Windows 8 Consumer Preview announced: why it's not called beta

        @Ed Bott [b]"Microsoft wants telemetry data, not bug reports. "[/b]. Spot on, Ed.

        Microsoft's telemetry systems report a vast quantity of valid and valuable data about how your machine is working, its performance, power consumption, what hardware it has installed, what apps you run, what crashes, what leaks, etc.

        This information is several orders of magnitude more valuable to MS than almost any amount of randomly sent emails from people saying, for example, "I've just installed Win8 on my PC and it doesn't work" or "Windows 8 doesn't play sound".

        THIS is how MS have been able to dramatically reduce and shorten the entire beta & release process from 18+ months in XP/Vista to 9 months in Win7/8.
        bitcrazed
      • RE: Windows 8 Consumer Preview announced: why it's not called beta

        @Ed Bott
        Telemetry vs. bug reports and the devaluation of the meaning of beta is what I suggested when I saw the excellent Mary Jo Foley report this. I may say a lot of stupid stuff, but not that day. In that Talkback.
        DannyO_0x98
      • RE: Windows 8 Consumer Preview announced: why it's not called beta

        @Ed Bott I saw that Ed, just wanted to reinforce the point. Engineering processes no longer require a "beta".
        EXMSDE
  • RE: Windows 8 Consumer Preview announced: why it's not called beta

    Well, I guess I lost your bet, I had written it the 25th. So close.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
  • RE: Windows 8 Consumer Preview announced: why it's not called beta

    Doesn't matter to me what its called as long as I can get my hands on it and install it.
    Loverock Davidson-
    • RE: Windows 8 Consumer Preview announced: why it's not called beta

      @Loverock Davidson- do you think you'd be able to get out of the basement to pick up a copy or will your Mum do it for you? I bet its your Mum's job to install it as well.
      deaf_e_kate
      • The purpose of your post was????

        @deaf_e_kate
        ye
      • RE: Windows 8 Consumer Preview announced: why it's not called beta

        @deaf_e_kate Who actually buys physical software anymore? :p
        Aerowind
      • RE: Windows 8 Consumer Preview announced: why it's not called beta

        @ye: he's had trouble installing linux and never succeeded (so he says), but as installing windows from a non-oem disc is a lot harder, he'll need his mums help (and he's a troll so his comments are worthless and only merit a wind-up)
        deaf_e_kate
      • RE: Windows 8 Consumer Preview announced: why it's not called beta

        @deaf_e_kate

        LOL... :D
        ScorpioBlue
  • RE: Windows 8 Consumer Preview announced: why it's not called beta

    21 more days. I'm not sure I can wait till then. Haha
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
  • RE: Windows 8 Consumer Preview announced: why it's not called beta

    A beta test by any other name still smells as sweet, and so does a gamma test.
    rocket ride