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."
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.