February 11, 2005 4:00 AM PST

A long winding road out of beta

Once considered the final stage of software development, beta versions are taking on a life of their own, as companies tinker endlessly with their products in public.

Underscoring the trend, 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."

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What's new:
Beta tests are getting longer, less restricted and more common, as companies tinker endlessly with their products in public.

Bottom line:
As beta cycles sprawl out into years-long affairs, some people are complaining that a crucial line between prime time and half-baked is being blurred.

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Google's beta time frames represent one of the most dramatic expansions yet for a process that until recently was used as an opportunity to discover fatal flaws and make final touch-ups in advance of a product's full public release.

The beta version, named for the second letter of the Greek alphabet, typically refers to the second stage of software testing. Traditionally distributed to a limited group of testers, it follows the alpha version, which is tested in the lab.

But in recent years, as complex applications reach their audience through Web sites rather than as shrink-wrapped or downloaded software titles, beta tests are getting longer, less restricted and more common.

"I have noticed it more frequently in the past three years," said Catarina Fake, co-founder and marketing chief for online photo site Flickr, which observed the first anniversary of its beta stage on Thursday. "Three years ago, I don't have a lot of recollection of beta being used on Web sites."

"We could take beta off all of our products tomorrow, and we wouldn't actually have accomplished anything."
--Larry Page, co-founder, Google

As Page acknowledged, Google, too, is known for the quantity and longevity of its betas. Google Catalogs? Beta since 2001. Google News? Beta since 2002. Froogle? Just as old.

Recent changes to Google's Gmail Web mail site roused speculation that its beta phase might be coming to an end.

As beta cycles at Google and elsewhere sprawl out into years-long affairs, some people are complaining that a crucial line between prime time and half-baked is being blurred.

"I feel like 'beta' has become a questionable term," said Mary Hodder, a technology consultant. "Google and Flickr just leave it on their sites for years, so it cues us to think, beta, no big deal."

Hodder sparked a controversy in the blogging community when

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7 comments

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The only problem is...
The only problem is is that any company that keeps the product in beta for one, two, three years or longer had better get it right otherwise they are going to look like *****.

Microsoft has had Windows in beta since 2.x but they still haven't gotten it right. Though they do have the guts to say their products are out of beta when in reality they are still in alpha testing, at least one it comes to bugs and security holes.

Frankly, I don't trust companies that have beta for years and years it tells me they have no idea about what the process of creating something, testing it and getting it out and then starting work on the next version. Keeping a program in beta for 5 years so they can keep adding features to it is just stupid and it not a product I would buy unless I had no choice (like Windows).

Robert
Posted by (336 comments )
Reply Link Flag
So?
People who complain will always complain, no matter what. People complain when the beta is too short. People complain when the beta is taking too long. People complain when the final product is too expensive/cheap/insecure/hard to use/whatever reasons. No idea why you pick Windows alone, like other products are the greatest in the world :)
Posted by 201293546946733175101343322673 (722 comments )
Link Flag
bugs and security holes
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.analogstereo.com/volvo_740_owners_manual.htm" target="_newWindow">http://www.analogstereo.com/volvo_740_owners_manual.htm</a>
Posted by Ubber geek (325 comments )
Link Flag
New speak
"beta" is becoming a marketing term that means: You can't sue us if your machine is trashed, because the program is still in beta.
Many licence agreements state that beta software is for evaluation purposes only, and may not be stable. Use at your own risk.
Posted by Marcus Westrup (630 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Exactly
When people *****, they can just say: "Well we told you it was beta"
Posted by (13 comments )
Link Flag
Newegg.com beta testing new website
Newegg.com is currently beta testing their website. If you visit the AnandTech forum here -- <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://forums.anandtech.com/messageview.aspx?catid=38&#38;threadid=1509489&#38;enterthread=y" target="_newWindow">http://forums.anandtech.com/messageview.aspx?catid=38&#38;threadid=1509489&#38;enterthread=y</a> -- you can see screenshots. If you visit www2.newegg.com it redirects to a login screen --<a class="jive-link-external" href="https://secure.newegg.com/app/LinkToNewVersion.asp?From=new" target="_newWindow">https://secure.newegg.com/app/LinkToNewVersion.asp?From=new</a> -- interesting!
Posted by 2smokingbarrels (1 comment )
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