It’s Hip to be Beta

Netscape Navigator 0.96b ScreenshotIn the olden days of the web, the term “beta” was the rough equivalent of “beware”. These days beta is more the leather jacket and motorbike of internet users, the new online equivalent of cool. The web is caught in the grips of betamania.

I’m talking about the alarming number of new web applications that are coming up “beta”. Gmail is beta. JotSpot Tracker is beta. CoComment is beta. Pretty much every new web application you come across these days is beta. I haven’t seen this much beta since the heady days of Netscape 2.x.

“Beta” traditionally refers to a state of development in a piece of software’s lifecycle that indicates it’s not ready for use as a dependable product. To a certain extent, it means that developers don’t quite trust their work yet and that the software is prone to failure. By releasing beta software, developers are seeking feedback from users adventurous enough to experiment with an unstable environment.

Back in the day, beta software would only have been used by hardcore geeks. It was well-known that beta software carried inherent risks that could result in data loss or exposure to external malicious behaviour such as hacking and malware. Beta was a virtual backalley adventure that could often result in damage to one’s computer. Beta was unprotected computing.

Today, however, beta is chic. Not unlike the way porn has gone mainstream with bellybutton piercings and butt cleavage commonplace among suburban teenage girls, the average computer user gets a rush from taking a walk on the wild side of software development.

Some of the most commonly used web applications today are beta. Take Google’s Gmail. It’s been in a perpetual state of beta for years. Google still describes it as “experimental”. In fact, look at any of Google’s popular web applications and you’ll find most are beta, including Catalogs, Groups, Book Search, and Alerts.

Millions of people all around the world depend on Google’s “beta” software every day. Corporations are using Gmail to distribute information; not-for-profit organizations leverage Groups to organize themselves effectively. Yet remember what beta traditionally means: it could all fail tomorrow, all your data could evaporate overnight, and there’s nothing to be done about it.

What’s even funnier is that Google seems to actively seek out other beta-status web applications to add to their collection. They recently acquired Writely, for example, a web-based word processor that’s never gone beyond beta, despite being in widespread use by tens of thousands of people.

It’s ironic, then, that Google is one of the champions of an evolving method of software development called “agile development,” that eschews the concept of beta. Google’s job postings for software developers specify agile development skills as being required.

Agile development happens incrementally, with lots of internal testing by the developers themselves to minimize users’ exposure to the risk of failure. Updates to products developed using the agile methodology are often so minor as to go unnoticed by users.

In comparison, traditional methods of software development tend to be earth-shattering, epic engineering efforts that simply cannot be tested by the developers alone. The sheer scale of their complexity and ambition requires that the software be put into a “beta” status and tested by a broad range of potential users.

Web applications lend themselves well to an agile development model because there’s typically no requirement for users to download and install each new “version”. Instead, a web application is simply updated and all users have access to its new features instantly. Google makes good use of this agile development model, often seemingly tweaking their web applications on the fly.

So Google’s use of the term beta for its software is a misnomer in the traditional sense.

“Beta” means something else to Google, and to the whole modern web application community for that matter. The word has evolved into an empty term that’s being used to pump up the hype and excitement around a new genre of software products.

Contemporary beta is a marketing concept. It’s all about image: these new beta products are the Harleys of software to Microsoft’s staid stable of minivan products like Word and Outlook. Doing the beta thing today is exciting, an escape from the suburbia of desktop software for a night out in the wild and crazy downtown world of web based applications.

The question is, of course, as we move forward into this new era of software, can we all adapt to this world of concrete and noisy traffic? Or will the experiment end in a bad hangover with a hasty retreat to the tranquility of the wide avenues of the suburbs?

We’ll only find out if Google and its web application cohorts ever manage to push their products past beta.

First published in the Yukon News on Friday, March 31, 2006.

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