For Some Technology Companies, 'Beta' Becomes a Long-Term Label
November 28, 2005

Few people would fly on an airline that advertised its planes had untested
engines, or swallow a pill from a drug company that admitted the side
effects were unknown. Yet when it comes to software, it seems consumers are
much more adventurous.

Technology companies like Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are changing the
way they develop products by using the masses to identify problems in their
unfinished programs, known as beta versions. For years, the term "beta"
referred to a relatively short period of testing by a select group of
outsiders. These days, beta editions are not only released to the public,
but also stay in that mode for months, or even years. Google News, Google's
news aggregator, has been in beta for three years. Microsoft's antispyware
application has been in beta for nearly a year.

Betas also have become a marketing device in a fiercely competitive
industry, allowing software and Internet firms to release new products or
services sooner and cultivate early buzz. Betas, which once had been quietly
distributed, are trumpeted in press releases and at news conferences.

"I deplore it as a consumer; I admire it as a marketing professional," said
Peter Sealey, a marketing professor at the University of California at
Berkeley and former chief marketing officer at Coca-Cola Co. "I can't come
up with anything else in the entire marketing world where marketers
knowingly introduce a flawed or inadequate product [and] it helps grow your
user base."

Critics say the technology companies risk alienating users by broadly
releasing products that sometimes are riddled with bugs, or by dragging
their feet to complete their beta products. The companies say consumers
benefit from the practice because the widespread testing helps them make
critical improvements and determine which extra features users want.

>From IBM to Etsy

Beta, the second letter of the Greek alphabet, has been part of the lexicon
of the computer industry for decades. At International Business Machines
Corp. in the 1960s, software developers on mainframe computers worked
through two phases, alpha and beta, said Burton Grad, a computer programmer
for IBM at the time who now tracks software history for the nonprofit
Computer History Museum. An alpha test was an internal review of the
program's design. A beta test was an invitation-only review by a few
customers. In the case of IBM, the customers included banking giants and oil

"We depended on them to do the testing that we could not do in a real-life
situation," said Mr. Grad. "This was not for the public."

Betas didn't change much with the advent of personal computers. Companies
like Microsoft drafted small groups to beta-test software before it was sold
to the masses. But the Internet has altered the landscape because companies
can easily release software to thousands of consumers through their Web
sites, enabling them to draft as many beta testers as they want. Early
public betas included the Netscape Web browser in 1994 and the ICQ
instant-messaging service launched in 1997 and sold a year later to America
Online. These days, many public betas are Web-based applications that
companies can update by changing code on their servers.

For Mr. Grad, 77 years old, the evolution of beta software is reflected in
the business endeavor of Robert Kalin, his 25-year-old grandson. Mr. Kalin's
Internet startup, a marketplace for handcrafted bags and jewelry,
carries the beta label at the top of its site.

"It goes against the grain for me," Mr. Grad said. For his part, Mr. Kalin
likens beta to a "philosophy." He said, "It's like letting the public in on
your experiments." Although the site is open for business, he said, it
remains in beta because features are still being added, such as an upcoming
tool to let users request custom-made products.

The Beta Excuse

Escalating competition among Google, Microsoft, Yahoo Inc. and Time Warner
Inc.'s America Online has helped up the ante in the beta game, analysts
said. Companies like Microsoft have long talked about products months before
they launch, in part to create fear and uncertainty for competitors, said
Joe Wilcox, a senior analyst at Jupiter Research. Now, they can release an
unfinished product in beta, hold a press conference and attract a phalanx of

"Things can go wrong and [companies] can throw up their hands and say,
'Sorry, but, hey, it's in testing,'" Mr. Wilcox said. "You have what I call
the beta excuse. It's bad for companies because it hurts perception of the
quality of their products." Mr. Wilcox has criticized Microsoft on his blog
for releasing services in beta that were not up to snuff to get a marketing

MSN's search engine was panned following its beta release. Consumers trying
the beta version of the company's MSN Spaces service -- which lets users
create personalized Web pages -- had trouble posting information and
couldn't load certain pages. Some early users of Google Talk -- the search
giant's instant-messenger service -- encountered connection problems.

Some technology analysts argue that companies with widespread software
cannot adequately test how a program will perform without a public beta
version. "There is virtually no testing process that will stress the
product" other than a public beta, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst with
technology research firm Enderle Group.

Many consumers will tolerate problems encountered with beta services because
many are offered free of charge, he said. One exception is Flickr, the
popular photo-sharing service. Yahoo acquired Flickr when it was still in
beta in March, and it remains in beta. Users of Flickr's premium version,
which includes unlimited storage, must pay about $25 a year.

Kerry Parkins, director of product marketing at America Online, said public
betas mean consumers will get better products "in the end," but "we do need
to step back and make sure we do a good job of explaining to consumers what
they're getting themselves intoŠ At AOL, we try to be very explicit." The
company offers a Web site, AOL Beta Central, that lets users test products.

King of Beta

Google releases many of its applications to the public with the beta label,
and also keeps many of them in beta for a long time. Critics say the format
gives Google an excuse to avoid responsibility for any flaws.

Google keeps a product in beta if it has not implemented all the features it
wants to add, and "as long as there are some quality improvements we want to
make," said Marissa Mayer, vice president of product development. Beta also
allows Google "to launch products sooner," she said.

Google News has been in beta since 2002 because "there are issues around
quality and the ability to find" particular content, said Ms. Mayer. The
site, which features headlines and summaries of articles from scores of news
organizations, may be revised to include information published on blogs, she

Before Google News was released in beta, the team working on it was divided
about whether it should allow users to sort news items by date or by
location. Google decided to release it without either feature. The first
day, Google received 300 emails from users asking for a sort-by-date
function, and only three from users wanting to search by location. Google
quickly added a sort-by-date feature.

When it comes to beta releases, Google draws a distinction between services
on its Web site and software its users must download to their machines. The
two versions of its Google Desktop Search software, which lets users search
for files on their hard drives, were each in beta for only two months, Ms.
Mayer said. "Client software needs to be high quality," she said. "You can't
put computers at risk. When you use a service on Google's site, I think
people are more willing to take a chance on beta."

Long or Short Beta

Adam Sohn, director of global sales and marketing for Microsoft's MSN, said
the company is sensitive to concerns about beta versions. "I can tell you,
across the board, we're interested in getting that little [beta] logo as
quickly off of products as possible without sacrificing the integrity and
quality of the products," he said. "You don't want to drive a car that says
'Test model. Engine may or may not work.'"

Mr. Sohn said Microsoft's approach to beta has "had to evolve" because the
distribution model for software has changed. The company has nearly 200
million world-wide users of its instant-messenger service, for example, and
"when you test a new version you need to make sure when it's done it's going
to run at that kind of scale."

The public's acceptance of beta releases has been a marketing coup for
technology companies, said Mr. Sealey, the marketing professor. If Procter &
Gamble Co. came up with a version of Tide "that turned everything blue pink,
they wouldn't launch it," he said. "But a software guy can do that."

Write to David Kesmodel at [EMAIL PROTECTED] 

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