An End To the Beta Culture Nonsense: Could it Happen?

betarevolution I’m going to issue a rousing second, or amen, or here-here, to Jesus Diaz’s Call For Revolution Against Beta Culture. I am in absolute agreement with Jesus on this. Things have gone a bit too far as we now accept inferior, not quite ready hardware and software as the norm when things are released, knowing that a fix is being planned for the next release or update.

Jesus correctly points out that this Beta Culture has guilty parties all around, including those of us who feed the beast by writing about the latest and greatest gear that pops onto the market, the consumers, the manufacturers and their ridiculous and overlapping product cycles. But at the heart of this, is something simple and pure. When we plunk down our dollars for a piece of gear or software, we just want it to work straight up. Here’s the money quote:

We have surrendered in the name of progress and marketing and product cycles and consumerism. Maybe those are good reasons, I don’t know, but looking at the past, it feels like we are being conned. Deceived because the manufacturers of electronic products have taken our desire to progress faster and even embrace the web beta culture as an excuse to rush things to market, to blatantly admit bugs and the rushed features sets and sell the patches as upgrades.

What is it about human nature that leads us down this path? It isn’t just in tech, it is the same in many businesses. Goodness knows in my business of producing theatre, I’d love to kill the idiot who decided that inviting reviewers on opening night was a good thing. No show (unless you count Broadway where they can afford to have endless rounds of preview performances before inviting the critics in) is ever truly ready on opening night, simply because our product needs audiences to be fine tuned.

But back to tech, we’ve seen this grow and expand to the point that we’re willing to plunk down dollars for just about any new device or piece of software. Jesus correctly points out that the iPhone 3G had serious problems on its release. I get the impression that Google and T-Mobile are treating the G1 the same way. In our niche here, the UMPC was nothing more than a beta rollout of not-ready-for-primetime hardware with a massive (and, as it turns out ill-conceived, viral marketing campaign). Vista is looking more and more like a beta for Windows 7, although I don’t think it started out that way. Nokia seemed to have a sensible approach with its Internet Tablet on its first release. They basically said that the first and later early generations were not aimed at the mass market but at the geeks who would then help them progress towards an eventual consumer product. They seemed to be addressing the issue sanely, in my view, but did it work? We won’t know until we get further down the road, but the luster is off that device, at least for the moment. It appeared that Intel was going to follow a similar path with MIDs, with an ultimate goal of having the technology and market coincide a few years down the pike. Again, too early to tell, but the boo-birds are already out based on the early returns. In both cases, (Nokia and the MIDs), the rush of other products to market in the same niche outstripped what appeared to be a rational long range vision.

There’s an old expression that makes sense in this crazy cycle of cynical con gaming. Throw something against the wall and see if it sticks.

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Again, I’ll add to the call, and I’ll offer a suggestion. Consumers should demand Beta pricing. That’s right. Instead of the high price on gadgets and devices when first released, slip them into the mainstream at rock bottom prices, if what you’re looking for is to create a market for something new that isn’t quite ready yet. But wait, you say, that happens with software all the time doesn’t it? Isn’t Beta software free? Yes, it is. But isn’t it intriguing that we see very few successes once companies have to begin charging for their services in order to recoup costs?

Jesus speculates that perhaps the recession or financial apocalypse that we are just beginning to live through will offer up a change. Maybe, maybe not. I’m not sure anything could really change the cycle completely, even if consumers just stopped buying due to hard times. But I’d like to see it happen.

And with that, I’m going to go rehearse a show that probably won’t be quite ready on its opening night in a week, continuing my part in all the madness.

  

Comments

  1. GoodThings2Life says

    I've hated the whole "beta" tag nonsense for years now. While I don't mind "trying" a product while it's in beta– even was an official beta tester for for Windows 95, 98, 98SE, and 2000– I hate this months and months or even YEARS of mass public "beta" testing for products. I definitely prefer more concentrated, private betas until the "release candidate" stage and then maybe open to the public to catch any "show stopper" bugs.

    Some teams still do it the right way and release a beta for public testing, and then quickly issue updates and final releases within a few months. But not even all teams within a company are good at it. Windows Live Messenger and Windows Live Writer produce great betas, even Windows Live Mail… but then there's Windows Live Foldershare that was in beta for well over a year only to be replaced by Windows Live Sync which is also in beta. Go figure.

    But Google is definitely the worst offender. Gmail has been in permanent beta status for years now. Frankly, for some of these products and services it's high time that they– and pardon the expression– sh*t or get off the pot!

  2. CLC says

    Personally, I think that, if a product is free, then it's fine if it's in beta for extended periods of time; but if the company expects you to plunk money down for a product, I expect that product to operate as described!
    So I don't mind Google having a bunch of beta products, but Microsoft and Apple had better get their rears in gear, or I won't plunk my money down!

    That's my two cents.

  3. cphickie says

    Once this started happening even with Apple products (the ultimate plug and play company), it has gone to far.
    Coming soon….gamma testers!

  4. CLC says

    @cphickie

    That's for sure! Apple is the company that deserves the biggest kick for this kind of thing because of how high they price their products and because they have full control of their products. Vista could have been ready from day one; but, if two or three or ten hardware companies aren't ready for it, it's not going to work. (And, if you install it on a machine that can't handle it, it won't work.) Apple, on the other hand, lays the law down on their products and keeps a tight control. That means that they should have had every single bug tested out of them from the start since they have every legal scenario within their control! >_<

  5. davidm says

    I think of it as more of a crowdsourcing approach, where the line between developers and consumers is blurring. This leads to a more diverse ecosystem with less limited options, which is markedly different from products in the past which were "here it is, take it or leave it, do you want it in black or silver" that is so anti-internet, anti open source, anti open content. We're now in a transition period where things are a bit unstable, because of what is being taken on and the inherent complexity of computer programs and device networks. In a few years, everything will feature an addressable, update able computer. Your phone, tv, car, this will enable energy efficiency, smart networks, re-use of facilities (your stereo will finally get rid of the corny vfd and LEDs and use your "tv" or "computer" screen). Do you want to go back to everything being closed and disposable?

    This is not to say you are "wrong" to want something that just works, but the plateaus haven't quite been worked out, and in the meantime we get a lot of competition.

    I'd actually argue for more expensive products, so there would be longer cycles, along with more ability to update and repurpose, and stiff penalties via activated consumers (don't worry, you won't have to do anything except make the occasional comment on suitability) using engagement and in acute cases, class action suits for shoddy products or products which don't allow the user community to do their own updates. Anyone who doesn't do a bit of soul searching before buying their next gadget, and without finding good homes for what they don't really need, is a bit guilty of contributing to this: http://www.engadget.com/2008/11/10/video-chinas-t

    There is good news for you, who wants 1.0 rather than a beta. Google's themes for their mail product probably means they're coming to a point where they are doing window dressing on a product, rather than constant innovation. Somehow all the tech blogs missed this analysis.

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