The Beta Culture

The Internet has revolutionized many things in many ways. One of the most significant things Internet has radically affected is products service based products delivery. It has reduced the distance between the customer and the producer of products. One of the interesting developments is the Beta release of products to the end customer. So what’s new here? Beta stage has always been there in technology products where the product is debugged, i.e. the stage after alpha (new features added to the products) and before release candidate (all important bugs removed). But this conventional definition of Beta is no longer true in the Internet World. How I see the Beta now is a stage encompassing market research, development, testing, debugging and early adoption. The idea is to get the initial concept out there to the customer with some prototypical implementation and do the rest with the help of the customers.

This is a great concept in many ways. Market research gets a whole new perspective. With the help of business intelligence software, market researchers can track the customer usage of the products, analyze the early responses and adoption scenarios. Product development becomes an agile process. The speed of an idea to convert into a product is more rapid then ever before. Reason – there’s no need to wait for market research to be completed and requirements to be assembled to start the development. It’s more of an ongoing process. Features can be added sporadically while customers are adopting the product as per customer needs and requirements. The biggest benefitter of all is testing and debugging. Instead of a few dedicated resources to test the product, Beta release opens the doors to the World, potential future customers to test the product. This in no way can replace those dedicated resources, but still the combined force of many many people using the product is like a great addition. Beta release is also a great way of booking the early adopter’s loyalty. Adding features to the product, fixing bugs and making changes based on feedback from early adopters make them advocates for the product which helps in mass adoption.

Beta release has some drawbacks of its own, specially for the established brands. If a product is launched in Beta and is very buggy and hard to adopt, it’s not easy to attract the customers back to the product with the competition providing equally compelling and attractive options. Another downside is if the company is not able to attend to the early adopters, take in their feedback and respond to it, these customers can influence mass adoption in a negative way. The bigger the brand behind the product, the more vulnerable is a Beta release.

Beta release is a real delight for start-ups wanting to establish a brand with the help of Internet community. With the immense power in the Web to connect people, it’s really good to have a positive word of mouth behind your brand as a whole and product in specific. It is very important to give due credit to the early adopters and recognize them in making the Beta a success. Companies roll out schemes to recognize the early adopters in different ways. One of the most prominent ones in the recent years which comes to mind is Gmail Beta. Google provided early adopters option to invite new users to have a Gmail account. This helped Google fulfill two objectives – gave early adopters a feeling as if they were a part of Gmail product in development and increased the public adoption of Gmail. Before the beta tag will get off Gmail, it will already have more than a million customers.

So when should a successful Beta release get rid of the Beta tag? I think, the best time for a product to come out of the Beta is when the product is ready to cross the chasm (Geoffrey Moore). Things like bug free product, stability and other technological issues are important considerations, but removing the Beta tag in a timely manner is also very important to attract a certain type of users who are not very excited to adopt a product which they think is not yet officially released. So when the product has enough customers to help it get into the main stream and get mass adoption, it should evolve into an official release.

13 responses to “The Beta Culture

  1. Your remarks are fairly correct for services, or web based applications where it is easy to release the beta products to consumer in easy way, and then iteratively improve it and at some point remove the ‘beta’ tag.
    However, traditional apps are different ball game, and its hard to get that kind of feedback from early adapters which you usually get in web app betas.
    In desktop apps betas, we can sometime detect the crashes/bugs using watson data, but regarding the features & usabelity, i think very small % of users would be actually reporting that. And when they do, are we listening to them? (DRM, WGA, Multi desktop, what happened to feedback about all these from user?)

  2. That’s true to a large extent. It’s much easier for service based products. As far as desktop applications are concerned, we are slowly moving in that direction as well. Windows Vista and Microsoft Office 2007 Betas are readily available for customers to download. Till RC1, millions of downloads for Vista Beta were done. Visual Studio 2005 and SQL Server 2005 also had some successful Beta adoption. There are some restrictions in World Wide distribution due to bandwidth restrains and reach of broadband, but still it’s starting to take off.

    It will be interesting to see how Microsoft (or any other desktop application makers) will collect feedback about the use of desktop products anonymously. With the service aspect associated with almost all products now and increasing number of broadband users, it must be doable. I think if the customers get a feel that their feedback is taken into consideration, the percentage of users reporting the issues will also go up. I think companies do listen to their customer, the greater need is to communicate to the customer that they are being addressed. This is easier now than ever before due to the phenomenon of social networking. Companies can reach their customers much more easily and the word of mouth travels at lightening speed.

    Your points on DRM, WGA, Mutli desktop are valid, but I don’t think I am qualified enough to give an authoritative answer to that. My wild guess would be the reason for these to not take off as expected are issues like technological limitations, size or market and return on investment. Who knows, with enough competition and new ways to generate revenue, we might see developments in these areas on a much larger scale in the near future…

  3. The main goal behind the “new” beta phenomena is not about finding and fixing bugs. There is a whole class of users commonly refered to as Internet/Web optimizers. They are less than 15% but they are the people who really set the trend for the rest of the crowd. These are usually the geeky/nerdy folks, who have the urge to stay on top of the latest/greatest techincal edge. Companies want to make sure that they don’t lose these internet optimizers to the competition. So the company gives these users beta products/services which allows companies not to lose users to a new technological trend when a competitor brings out newer functionality before this company can release the same. This way companies can afford to keep people on the latest tech edge and still be forgiven for untested/buggy code.

    Another important thing is, the beta also allows the company to use these users as guinea pigs to see how users responsd to the beta product/service. if the optimizers don’t like it, they can always change/cancel the feature before its final release.

  4. I don’t think the post says that testing is the goal behind the Beta phenomenon; it’s a benefitter of the phenomenon. The kind and degree of benefits acrrued would of course differ with the product and technology type. The primary goal behind the Beta phenomenon is customer involvement – attracting the early adopters, staying competitive and doing market research with the product out there.

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  10. I noticed that this is not the first time at all that you mention the topic. Why have you chosen it again?

  11. I wrote this in Oct 06 as the first post on this topic. I have referenced this in future posts over the years. It fascinates me how in (my) industry of interest the beta culture is evolving by companies creating lab edition of products and keeping products in beta for ever. If you have any thoughts on this, I would love to discuss them.

  12. Hello

    Definitely gonna recommend this post to a few friends