While surfing through the products in Google Labs, I came across Google Talk, Lab Edition. Interestingly, that’s not the Google Talk that was released sometime back (and is still in beta), it’s a different “edition” as Google calls it, which you can use in parallel with the Google Talk beta. Then I saw a very similar thing for Gmail as well. So what’s this new lab edition concept? I believe it is an extension of the beta culture for already popular products.
I think it is important to understand that we are talking about the lab edition of already existing products. Online companies with “Labs” exposed for customers to get a sneak peek at what’s new is a growing and relatively well known concept. There are huge range of version pre-1.0 products available in company labs, whether it is Live Labs or Fidelity Labs or even Google Labs. But the products in Google Labs, in some cases, are being used by the customers and customers have a choice to keep using the existing edition or try the new lab edition. That makes those products and this operation different.
In the Web world today, we live in a continuous beta environment. Products stay in beta stage forever and are continuously evolving. But it is very risk prone to drastically change a product after it is adopted by the masses. At the same time, you need to keep improving the product to keep an edge above the competition. In such an environment, coming out with a different edition of the same product is a great way to attract the early adopters, get their feedback, see what they like and what they don’t, work on the features accordingly, and release the features that are very well received by the lab audience to the masses.
Technologically it’s brilliant model. You get to know what’s working and what’s not without affecting the mass users of the product. Customers who are interested in experimenting get a peek at what’s coming out and keep using the older edition if they want. I believe it is a big gain from a marketing perspective as well, as such a release help marketers strengthen their base of mavens.