Why the "beta culture" will have to change

Why the "beta culture" will have to change

Summary: Jesus Diaz of Gizmodo voices a concern that many tech enthusiasts are already bound to be aware of - that companies are too willing to push unfinished products out of the door, and that customers are too willing to pay for them!


Jesus Diaz of Gizmodo voices a concern that many tech enthusiasts are already bound to be aware of - that companies are too willing to push unfinished products out of the door, and that customers are too willing to pay for them!

I'm tired of this. This sense of permanent discomfort with the technology around me. The bugs. The compromises. The firmware upgrades. The "This will work in the next version." The "It's in our roadmap." The "Buy now and upgrade later." The patches. The new low development standards that make technology fail because it wasn't tested enough before reaching our hands. The feeling now extends to hardware: Everything is built to end up in the trash a year later, still half-baked, to make room for the next hardware revision.

You know, as much as I love being surrounded by (and sometimes immersed in) technology, I feel a lot like Diaz does. I'm not expecting perfection, but more and more I'm seeing products that are sold that are bordering on unacceptable (and some that are totally unacceptable and really unfit for purpose). I've handled products where, all jokes aside, the box they came in was the most useful and long-lived item.

There is, undoubtedly, an attitude of "ship now, fix later" among both hardware and software manufacturers. In fact, the attitude has become so prevalent that it's hard for a company to compete if it doesn't adopt the same shoddy attitude, even if it goes against the DNA of the company. Over the past ten years or so I've seen companies that used to be well known for shipping robust, solid products enthusiastically embrace the "ship now, fix later" and have taken it to the point where they're shipping products nowadays that they would once have been too embarrassed to do. Which companies do this? Diaz's piece lists many of the biggest culprits.

At the top of Diaz's hit-list is the iPhone:

Take the iPhone, for example, one of the most successful products in the history of consumer electronics. We like it, I love mine, but the fact is that the first generation was rushed out, lacking basic features that were added in later releases or are not here yet. Worse: The iPhone 3G was really broken. For real. Bad signal, dropped calls, frozen apps. This would have been unthinkable in cellphones just five years ago.

I agree. But to exclusively paint a bull's eye on the iPhone is somewhat unfair. that said, it's a good example of how bad things have become.

So, what's going to fix this attitude? Diaz touches on the economy and how the downturn might help improve things:

Maybe the recession will put some order in this thirst of new stuff and change the product cycles. As the economy slows down, people will think twice before buying the latest and greatest; they'll keep older hardware for longer.

Darn right. In fact, the boom-time that we experience for the past few years is partly responsible for "ship now, fix later." To put it simply, people have had too much money (or too easy access to credit) and this has meant that people are willing to put their cash down for things that don't fully fill their needs. If I stick with the iPhone example that Diaz bought up, I'm convinced that if this product had been released during tough economic times, it wouldn't have been lacking in basic features such as cut-and-paste and MMS messaging. The fact that the iPhone was released without supporting basic functionality, and the fact that despite these glaring it became the the successful product that it did, says an awful lot about both the company selling it, and the people buying it.

As money (or more specifically, credit, because people don't feel like they are spending their own money when spending credit) tightens up, people will demand better products, longer lifespans and more features for their money. Who says there aren't upsides to a rocky economy!

Topics: Hardware, iPhone, Mobility

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • A bad economy will only make it worse

    When's the last time you saw a job for a Beta Tester? For me, it was back in the WordPerfect 5.1 days, when a copy of the wordprocessor was going for $700. Today, I can get a laptop with a wordprocessor on it for $500. How things have changed! WP 5.1 was pretty rock solid. That said, how many people are willing pay the prices we used to pay for better testing? I am going to guess that it would be very few people that would agree to that. With the economy such as it is, I would suspect that there will be more people that will be looking for lower cost software, not higher.

    I do agree on one thing: we retire our software far to quickly. Most systems are evolutionary and what we are doing is retiring them right as they get stable.
    • You mean, MS make you retire them to "benefit" their shareholders.

      This is the whole laughable thing, but FINALLY people are waking up.
  • The iPhone 3G was really broken... This would have been unthinkable in cell

    Yet everywhere I look I see iPhone praise.
  • Look at Google mail...

    .. Google Mail is still labeled "beta" even after how many years? several anyway.

    I record and trade live concert audio. You have to compress the audio files before uploading them to an internet server to share them with others, to save both bandwidth and server space. There is an audio compression standard called "Shorten" (since replaced by FLAC which is a more efficient algorithm); one of the programs used to encode/decode shorten format files is called "mkw", after the author's initials. This tool was used extensively in the taper community for 5 years at least, and was always labeled "beta". In fact, the author never released a "stable" or production version, and eventually the tool was obsoleted by the adoption of newer technology, still labeled "beta". Give me a break. Even though I never had trouble with the app and it never crashed or corrupted files while I used it, i always wondered when the author would finally release the production version. That episode shows that he never had a viable version control system, and did not keep beta versions separate from stable versions (if he had any). Also he was never confident enough in the beta version to call it "production". For beta test software, you need to have a cutoff date for upgrades. Problems reported by a certain date will be fixed and incorporated in the new production version. Any problems encountered after that will be addressed in the next beta release. If I need to install production software, I don't want to waste time downloading/installing/testing beta software, so this is upsetting to discover the only versions are marked "beta", until you realize the author had no clue.

    • More likely a lack of something else...

      [b]Any problems encountered after that will be addressed in the next beta release. If I need to install production software, I don't want to waste time downloading/installing/testing beta software, so this is upsetting to discover the only versions are marked "beta", until you realize the author had no clue. [/b]

      More likely a lack of confidence in his skills as a programmer. Or a lack of feedback from his testers. I wrote an app back in the day and I never really ever got any feedback from the folks I had testing it. I had to chase them down and beg them to give me some sort of feedback.

      Either that or he invented the Google philosophy of programming - everything gets a beta label - permanently...
  • Pervasive problem

    Sometimes I think Flash memory was the worst thing invented because companies have extactly that attitude: we can always flash a fix later.

    But there is also a huge problem in the open source community. This idea that month after month, year after year you can release pre-1.0 software to the general public is laughable - Linux Wine comes to mind. I presume this is because APIs are still evolving, and the software still has many bugs.

    However, once something is released for the general public to use, it's effectively Version 1.0 whether you like it or not.

    But this isn't simply an open source problem. It seems lots of software projects are poorly conceived and managed, and end up in perpetual Beta.

    I wonder how it would work if an architect started to design a building and told the general contractor to begin work before the final blueprints were done?

    "Beta" = Substandard product that would not be tolerated in any other profession.
    • And yet

      for the last two decades the consumer and business has tolerated the substandard beta testing of Microsoft. Sounds like a double standard on your part. ]:)
      Linux User 147560
  • Linux User should talk...

    ...when so much of the development of that operating system is essentially ver 0.8 replaced by ver 0.8 -- aka JWZ's Cascade of Attention Deficit Teenager theory. You have an OS where sound still isn't reliable!
    • Say what?

      I have had more problems with Windows sound drivers (among others) than with Linux. I haven't had a linux sound issue in years.

      Nice try with the FUD though.....
      linux for me
      • Ever tried playing different sounds simultaneously? nt

        • Virtual channel mixer was

          introduced in Linux before it was possible in Windows.
    • Really?

      That's funny... because my OpenSuSE systems which run for several months non-stop seem to just keep working... sound, video everything. So it would appear you are using Red Hat 5.2 which would explain your issue. And one other thing, at least with the Linux community you don't have to pay to be a beta tester... like you do with Microsoft. ]:)
      Linux User 147560
    • XP SP2 leads you to ..... yup, Vista .... Woo hoo!!!!

      Now that is seriously a beta product, even the bald tubby one admitted that and he normally says ANYTHING to try to portray his sick filthy monopoly in the best possible light.

      Maybe the WOW did start now. Like, WOW, this is 2008 and MS still think they can charge people more and more for less and less, just so that the same greedy pigs that have ruined the economy can have more and more for themselves.

      Thank god for the recession. An end to the current sick madness, and a time to rethink ....

      BTW - OSS thinking is and will seep more and more into businesses in general. By that, I mean businesses will end up operating more and more for the benefit of everybody, not just themselves.
      • Linux fan (myself)

        Hey, I'm into OSS heavily, but if there's one thing I've learned, mostly in the past 30 years of my 55, it's that the real problem is the currently ruling legacy venture/vulture capitalist social paradigm (and all the other fascistic authoritarian systems developed in the past 150 years)- linux and OSS aren't going to change that very much because the overwhelming majority of the world's population has been conditioned to believe as a religion that all the solutions to the really big problems require outside intervention, whether it's government, Big Whatever, or God (I'm down wit'at, but the Big K has already allowed us the resources to DIY); the paradigm is based solely on greed for power and the primary principle that in order for [b][u]ME[/u][/b] to benefit, others [u][b]MUST[/b][/u] lose; manifestly not true in an unconditional sense, otherwise cooperative effort could not produce distributed benefit. Yet here we are in a recession, starting with the breakdown of the housing market (Remember the greed and power thing? Why do you think it saturated the entire industry?) Now we're all suffering the converse (or maybe is it the logical inverse?) of the paradigm.

        But the real problem with the recession is that those who will actually suffer most are those most deeply damaged; I live in the most frivolously prosperous nation in the world in recorded history, and still after well over six months of the trainwreck (when the TARP was passed that only benefited the biggiest pigs on Wall Street, and look where that got us), the big relief money isn't injected into the base level of the problem (they're finally talking about it weeks after the first 250B did obviously nothing)- it wouldn't be that hard to federally guarantee the loans and base the conditions on severity of need, ability to repay, and a few other parameters that should have been the basis of the mortgage industry in the first place. Now, just this week Congress is talking about doing something along those lines- bets it doesn't benefit those who truly do need it the most.

        Yeah, I've been working off the institutional credit grid for years, and it's been extremely tough, and I've only made it through this far because of some money from relatives (dead and alive) and a very few friends in business that [b][u]KNOW[/u][/b] I always pay my debts. But that's really what I'm talking about, this is based on giving in free exchange in direct opposition to the paradigm, a terrible uphill battle for the individual without tremendous material resources.
      • Would like to hear you say "thank god for the recession" once you're laid

        off. Ohhh, I forgot. You don't have any job. I don't think MS ruined the economy. It's bum like you that did.
  • I can't agree more, finaly someone with a brain!

    Darn, finally I stumble upon an article with the same concerns as mine...

    My favourite gripe was about a programming IDE called Real Basic. I kept using that thing for years, and things kept being broken with it.

    And that really did upset me because, even though making a 99% reliable programming IDE is tall order, programming software is made to "mint" other software. It''s one thing to have a misbehaving word processor and have to use bold instead of italic, and another to include bad code in a application you sell because the IDE that allowed you to code is buggy and unreliable itself.

    I kept complaining in the Newsgroup about this and too often, I fell on people who were perfectly happy with this situation.

    The latest release of Office for Macintosh 2008 is also quite a shame...

    My only hope is that recession will put and end to that...
  • It's not just the iPhone

    I completely understand people being angry at the iPhone. But in my view, the whole cell phone thing is quite a mess.

    I personally don't use one and I consider that I'm very lucky not to have to.

    Even in close to a tower, these things still sound like you're talking in a tin can, at best... And when you leave big cities, these becomes more or less just expensive walky talkies...

    And that's only for the quality, but these things also cost a bundle, are easily lost or broken, often use closed systems, and the list goes on... The iPhone is only the latest increment in that silly race for mobile crapiness.
  • RE: Why the

    Well, the only explanation I can find it that the unfinished product is released to the market so that early adopters can report on the bugs early, thus reducing QA costs for the company. In other words, what the companies are doing is harnessing the power of the crowds to their advantage, in this case, relying on the opinions of a group of people that the company considers "select" (by virtue of being early adopters). I do see their point in doing this, but at the same time, why pay full price for a product that is not 100% finished?
  • RE: Why the

    After years of selling beta software, one would thing that the users would be fed up. Microsoft has about the best marketing division in the world. What other company could have the majority of the world believing that their product is great, when in actuality, it is still in beta form.
    Now Microsoft is blaming the users for all the trojan/worm/virus problems, when in actuality, MS needs to shoulder the blame due to their sloppy OS design. But, then again, their marketing group is at it again!
  • It's America dude.

    Everyone has to have everything last Saturday. Then after 2 hours, they're done with it and want the next thing. It will never end.

    It's not just the companies. It's the consumers. Everyone is greedy. Everyone HAS to have everything RIGHT NOW. People will over draw their accounts just to get whatever it is they cannot absolutely have. Kids will hack their parent's credit cards to buy themselves that new game. People will forgo paying their rent so they can upgrade to Windows Vista. People will work all that overtime so they can get a bigger paycheck next pay period so they can buy that new LCD TV.

    It just never ends.

    But you're right. It's all being pushed out too fast too soon. There was another post about the quality of technology and how it's degraded in the last 10 years because of this same principle. And because of it companies CAN'T fix their products because they don't even know how.

    It's all just stupid.

    Everything has to constantly changed. There is no longer any kind of appreciation for what we have and just living with it for a long time.

    It's really sad. Even in movies. Hell, they're talking about re-making Poltergeist. What the hell are they thinking about doing that for?

    But what's funny is in all of technology... not much is ever focused on the things that we otherwise take for granted. Why? Because those items don't do anything fun. They don't beep, show animations, let us play video games, send text messages to our friends down the hall and around the corner at work.

    I'm talking about everyday items that are technological, but just not fun. Perhaps if the world focused more on improving simple items like that, the quality of living would actually be that much better and less traumatic (from all the stress and headache of always having to have the latest cell phone, computer, laptop or digital camera, mp3 player or video recorder).

    Of course, every effort is made already to improve those products. But the quality and result of that effort remains questionable and usually forces the consumer to eventually have to replace it because it never lasts.

    Because the same goes for all this stuff today. MP3 players, Operating Systems, Digital cameras, whatever... it's all being made cheap, fast, effortless and shoved out so that people can just have something "new."

    That's all life is about now a days. What can I get today that will be different from what I had yesterday. And if people don't get something... at least one little thing... they're unhappy. Plain and simple.

    The world is not a happy place anymore. It's at war within itself. Struggling to always find something better.

    While the world around us continually falls even more corrupt, most people don't care or even give a sh*t because as long as they have the latest MP3, the latest cell phone, and can check their latest comments/wall posts on MySpace/Facebook, they're happy. If none of that is new at least once a day, they get depressed and then Blog about how much they hate the world, worship vampires and replaced their entire wardrobe with all black clothing and call themselves agnostic.

    I do not speak from experience. Yes I have a MySpace and Facebook account to which I check maybe 2 times, maybe 3... if I'm lucky a month. I don't have an MP3 player or a digital camera. I don't have an LCD tv. I don't subscribe to cable. I just have this laptop that was given to me and I use it to read the news and e-mail my parents once a month and that's it. I don't play video games because I am too busy.

    I take the time once a day to read ZDNet and comment if I choose on various articles. Then, I'm done. I have plans to hang out with some friends every evening, eating dinner, talking about our day, going out in town (I live in downtown Seattle) and participating in whatever random events just staying busy.

    I don't have time for cell phones (which I also don't own, I just have a landline), mp3 players, video cameras, LCD TV's, or any of that stuff. It just doesn't run my life.

    But... I do stay up to date about it all, ODDLY enough. I find it... humorous to watch everyone else in the world think their lives just can't run without any of it... when the whole time... I do.

    I like to think what it would be like if life were like it was in the 50's minus poverty and the undeveloped ways of the nation at the time. (Predudice, women in the workplace, etc).

    Just take away the internet, technology for the most part and all fast food and junk food in the grocery stores...

    And we'd all be beautiful, in shape, handsome, healthy people like they were (when they took care of themselves) in the 50's.

    That would be nice.

    Now. Everyone's finding out they have cancer, HIV or some other disease, feeding their kids Hamburger Helper or MacDonalds and blogging about it from their iPhone on Facebook and taking pictures and showing the world so that they can talk about it on the news for everyone to watch on their LCD TV's at home but no one will ever see it because they just fast foward through that brief newscap during the commercials while watching America's Next Top Model (No I don't watch that show, I'm not gay) because they have DVR or Windows Media Center or they're too busy playing X-Box 360 involved in yet another WAR game that seems to be the most popular genre of video games out there while all the while this whole country is striving to get away from War and not have anything to do with it but yet, the children of tomorrow thinking about nothing but War because it's their latest video game.

    America is just plain f*cked up.