On Alphas and Betas

There seems to be a rash of Alpha and Beta test software available at the moment. I currently have, or have very recently had, the following on my laptops:- Ubuntu 8.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

There seems to be a rash of Alpha and Beta test software available at the moment. I currently have, or have very recently had, the following on my laptops:

- Ubuntu 8.10 Alpha 5

- Firefox 3.1 Alpha 2

- Opera 9.60 Alpha 1

- Chrome Beta

In addition, there is a Beta release of ooVoo for Mac (but I don't have a Mac), and if I were foolish enough to allow Skype to contaminate my Windows system, there is a Beta 4.0 available of that as well.

Whew! That's a lot of test software! But wait a minute - that's really what it is supposed to be, TEST software. Alpha and Beta releases are meant to be put out by software developers in order to allow wider testing of new versions and new features, and to get feedback and comments from the wider user community, before making a final release. They are not meant to be final, polished, stable versions, and users should install and use them at their own risk, and with the understanding that they will provide feedback to the developers about any problems they may run into.

I mention all of this because it seems to me that in some cases, the "Alpha" and "Beta" designations are being misused, or misunderstood, or just plain ignored. Here are three examples which I think show the various ways things can go.

- Ubuntu: The Alpha releases of 8.10 (Intrepid Ibex) have been available for some time now. But they are not "promoted" on the Ubuntu home pages, or to the general public anywhere else for that matter. When you do find them, they are clearly marked as test versions, not to be installed or used on production systems, and the means of providing feedback are clearly indicated. My own experience with them has been that it works wonderfully on my older S2110 laptop, but it still has significant problems on my newer S6510 laptop with both display drivers and power management.

- Firefox: The beta release is announced and made available on their developer's page, and is clearly indicated as being intended for developers and testers only. The means of reporting problems is clearly indicated on the download page. I haven't tried this yet myself, as I have been busy with other browser testing.

- Opera: Although it is called "Beta 1", when you get to the download page it is referred to as a "preview" release. There is no mention of a special means or place to report problems. It seems to me that this is getting away from "beta test" territory and into "sneak peek at the next release" territory. This version seems to work very well for me, but honestly I don't see any huge changes from the current (9.52) version.

- Google Chrome: The Chrome web page contains the word (BETA) exactly once. Everywhere else it looks like a normal browser download page, with promotional information, feature overviews, videos, cartoons, and so on. I don't see anything anywhere about problem reporting, feedback, or any other kind of contact. The "Terms of Service" agreement, which you have to accept before downloading, looks to me like it is their standard agreement for all sorts of things; there is nothing in it about this being a test or preview version, and there are conditions about things like account abuse which as far as I can tell are totally irrelevant for Chrome. Considering the press releases and other publicity Google made about Chrome, and the way it was picked up and promoted by the press and blogs, this seems much more like a "land grab", trying to get the product out, generate as much publicity as possible and get it installed as widely as possible, than a genuine "test release". In any case, I tried it, it seemed to have quite a few rough edges and it did some things that I didn't like, so I uninstalled it pretty quickly.

- Skype: When the 4.0 Beta 1 release was made in mid-June, the general opinion was that it should have been called an Alpha release, or even a pre-alpha technology evaluation release. Since that time there has been lots of feedback, but no further releases. Perhaps the massively negative reaction caused them to go back and do a major redesign, and that has slowed things down. I haven't yet tried this, and don't intend to do so, under any circumstances.

The point of all this is, when you consider using pre-release software, whether it be Alpha, Beta or whatever, you should think about what you are getting, why you are getting it, why it is being offered to you, and what both you and the producer stand to gain (or lose) from the bargain. You probably don't want to get sucked into downloading a buggy new version of something just so that you have the "latest and greatest", especially if the current version is working adequately for you. Likewise, if you do decide to try it, don't be too surprised when you run into problems, make sure that you report them if there is a way provided to do that, and keep an eye out to see if they are fixed in the next pre-release or the final release.

jw 10/9/2008

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