February 11, 2005 4:00 AM PST
A long winding road out of beta
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she wrote about her experience losing data while using a paid RSS (Really Simple Syndication) aggregator that was in beta. She didn't know it was a test version, she wrote in her blog, because she couldn't imagine that a company would charge for a piece of beta software.
"When we go to a site and purchase something in beta, the word has lost its meaning," Hodder said.
Fake defended Flickr's decision to offer a paid beta service, saying consumers wanting more storage capacity demanded it and that it was keeping the company running while it labored to put the finishing touches on the service. In addition to a free account, the company offers extra storage for $59.95 per year.
Fake said the length of the Flickr test was inadvertent. The photo service came out of what was originally supposed to be a multiplayer game site. In the summer, when the company honed its focus on photo storage and sharing, the site became so popular it had to refocus on building up its computing and network resources and de-emphasize work on features it hoped to add to the service.
"We put out iterations of our product design really quickly," Fake said. "We'll put something out there, see what happens, see what activity happens around various features, then constantly work and refine it by interacting with the users of the software. Nothing teaches you how your software actually works better than actual use."
Some of Google's test versions--Gmail and the social networking site Orkut--built in invitation-only systems in order to limit growth during the beta.
In the world of downloadable software, high-profile disasters haunt the memories of those who took the beta label off too soon.
Netscape Communications, for example, came under intense criticism after releasing Netscape 6, which was based on pre-version 1.0 builds by the Mozilla.org open-source development group.
"Netscape 6 still plays like beta software," one critic said at the time. "The results I've had using it seem to indicate that it's just not quite finished. I'd have much rather seen them wait until the Mozilla project had their 1.0 version complete instead of rushing it out the door."
One veteran of the browser wars recalled the original Mosaic browser--Netscape 6's distantly related ancestor--as "an endless beta cycle."
"One classic way to get caught in an endless beta cycle is if the development team doesn't have the discipline to freeze features," said Jon Mittelhauser, who co-authored Mosaic and was a founding member of Netscape. "They can keep trying to squeeze one more little 'safe' feature into the product, which inevitably has some side effect--bugs somewhere else--and starts the vicious cycle all over. This often happens with the 'best' developers because they don't want to be sitting around fixing little bugs; they want to be implementing major features."
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