The private beta is an art form. It can make a service seem exclusive and important, even if the site's creators are just trying to keep it from imploding from an influx of new users. While Web developers have long used this control system to do pre-launch bug mashing, certain sites have made it something memorable--even if the product ends up being a dud.
Gmail, circa 2004, is one of the best examples of a private beta done right. Google intentionally limited the number of people who could use the service, but built in an invite system that would let users give access to friends and family. What ensued were a number of trading sites where users could exchange favors or services in return for an invite. Google eventually opened the service up to everyone, but for a while the hottest ticket in town was a Gmail invite.
Here are some of our favorites from the past few years:
Google Wave Status: Still closed This is the Web beta everyone wants in to today. It's a cool new communications platform that melds e-mail, instant messaging, and collaborative editing. But here's the thing: as interesting as it is to experiment with (we're in it, nyah nyah), it's mostly useless since you can't really talk with anyone in the real world on Wave. Only selected developers and press are in it now, and users don't get invitations to give out to friends. And who wants to talk to us?
Google Voice Status: Still closed Here's a closed Google beta that is useful, though: Google Voice. This incredible service gives you a new phone number with nearly every useful telephone feature known to mankind: it screens your calls, it forwards calls to other phones, it dials out (indirectly, but still). It receives and sends text messages. Currently, only people who got on to the previous version of the product, Grand Central (which Google acquired) have access. That's a bummer for everyone else. It's fantastic. When it opens up (Google won't say when), get it.
Wolfram Alpha Status: Opened May 15, 2009 The not-a-Google-killer "knowledge engine" was hyped to absurd levels for months before it was shown. Then Wolfram founder Stephen Wolfram held a series of over-the-Web product demos to froth up the geeks even more. Finally, a few lucky souls got access. It opened up to the public a week later. In this case, we understand why the developers held off on opening it up. Wolfram Alpha is an extremely interesting service but it's picky about syntax. For most users, it still makes for a better gee-whiz demo than it does a day-to-day productivity tool.
Microsoft Bing Status: Opened June 1, 2009 If you can't buy 'em, build 'em. After the Yahoo negotiations fell apart, rumors started to circulate about a new Microsoft search initiative, code-named "Kumo." Could Microsoft finally get search right? Access to the private beta was doled out to a few journalists in late May, giving the company only a few days to do damage control before the scheduled public rollout in early June. Fortunately for Microsoft, the reception for Bing was welcoming, even if most writers started off skeptical.… Read more