Just what qualifies as a "beta" these days?

This Beta Be Good

Just what qualifies as a "beta" these days?

Once again, my editor had to roust me out of bed and threaten to cut off my supply of Yoo Hoo and Ring Dings to get me to submit my column. I was legitimately able to claim the world’s oldest excuse: “I’ve been busy,” and I don’t mean busy watching streaming reruns of Dobie Gillis and Ozzie and Harriet on MY NEW CABLE MODEM (yaaahh-hoo!). Nope, I was busy doing the same thing I’m sure most of my loving readers do every day: drowsing through meetings.

A colleague, who was drowsing through the same meeting, complained to me that one task that consumed most of her time was managing the software development process. Problem is, she was really hired as a software developer. In an ideal world, software developers cut code while project managers manage the process. In this world, she spends nearly all of her waking moments updating project schedules in Microsoft Project, modifying task lists in Outlook/Exchange, managing source code files in Visual SourceSafe, and feeding her Tamagotchi. This leaves little time to actually write software. I’m sure many of you find yourself having to do two jobs, and nothing ever gets done.

In software development, the only way to develop complex applications successfully is to manage the development process rigorously. This means carefully designing the application, data model, and business rules; ensuring that the functional spec describes a solution that meets the end user’s needs; keeping enough beer and pizza on hand for the programmers; and drowsing through plenty of meetings.

Since programmers, who are supposed to be writing software, are often put in charge of managing the process, it’s a wonder that any software ever makes it beyond beta testing. All of which is a transparent attempt on my part to segue into the real topic of this column: What the heck is a beta?

Does It Get any Beta than This?

Can somebody explain to me what exactly is a “beta,” anyway? I know what it’s supposed to be. With MY NEW CABLE MODEM (yaaahh-hoo!) I know I’m beta testing because I’m the first person connecting to this particular router. I’m also one of a handful of customers to use this particular cable modem model. This meant several hunky linemen had to spend three days in my house trying to get the modem and router to sync. Even after all of that, the modem stopped working a few hours after they left, so they’ll have to come back. Darn.

It seems that most betas these days are simply ways for ISVs to ship a 1.0 release without worrying about the press crucifying them for selling buggy software. In most cases, you can even purchase the beta as if it were a final release. Remember Netscape Navigator? As I recall, its first public release was called a beta.

My favorite example, though, is RealAudio—it’s always in beta! Sure, you can download an old release. But if you do, it’ll notify you that an upgrade is available. What is this “upgrade?” Why, it’s the next beta, of course. As of this writing, you can download and purchase the RealPlayer Plus G2 Beta. What I don’t understand is this: If it’s still in beta testing, why are they selling it?

Microsoft, on the other hand, seems to be doing something right for a change. As of this writing, Microsoft SQL Server 7.0 Beta 3 is available to the public. It’s apparently a stable product—Microsoft recently announced that all of its mission-critical systems have been converted to SQL 7 B3. Even though it’s stable enough for mission-critical enterprise use, you can download it but you still can’t buy it! You’ll have to wait for the final release to give Microsoft any money for it. I must laud Microsoft for making this apparently stable product available, while continuing to test and get feedback before shipping a final release.

At the end of the day, what’s more important: Making an extra buck today or earning the goodwill of tomorrow’s customers? I may just be suffering Yoo Hoo withdrawal, but I think the latter is infinitely more important. So, if you’ve got a new software product and you want to start selling it, show some courage and call it a final release. If you’re not ready to do that, don’t sell it.

About the Author

Em C. Pea, MCP, is a technology consultant, writer and now budding nanotechnologist who you can expect to turn up somewhere writing about technology once again.

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