Tangled Webs
Beta Software: A Eulogy
Mar 19, 1997
Issue 2.4

Alas! Poor Beta

We are gathered here today to mourn the passing of beta software. I will miss it dearly. Sure, every day companies announce that they are releasing a "beta version" of their software, but these are crass impostors at best. The beta software we once knew is no longer with us. The meaning and function of beta software has changed considerably over the last two years, and the Internet is largely responsible.

In The Good Ole Days there were several distinct phases of software development. After the initial design and prototyping, the project would move into the development phase. The bulk of the programming was done in this phase. There might be hundreds of development releases (or builds), but they were only available to the development team. Once all the software's features had been implemented, the project moved into the alpha stage. This was the debugging stage, and only after all known severe bugs had been found and fixed would the project move onto beta testing. Yes, known bugs were fixed before the beta was released.

The purpose of beta testing was to test the software under real world conditions on a variety of platforms. Beta software was shipped to a few dozen or maybe a few hundred select beta-testers. The testers were given specific lists of actions they were to perform, checklists to fill out, and were usually bound by non-disclosure agreements. For their efforts, they would receive bragging rights and a free copy of the final commercial product.

Beta's Final Days

The popularization of the Internet changed all this. When developers had to foot the bill for mailing out hundreds of disks and staying in contact with their beta testers, they had to make the product as bug-free as possible. Significant changes would require another round of beta testing, which meant additional cost and delays.

The Internet, however, virtually eliminated the cost of distributing software and keeping in contact with the beta testers. A few companies decided to stretch the savings further by eliminating the checklists and offering their beta software to anyone who wished to download it.

What happened next was a marketing director's wildest fantasy. When reviewed, beta software was compared to the competition's finished products. The new features of the beta were played up and the bugs were shrugged off with "It's only a beta." Editors apparently forgot that the bugs are supposed to be fixed before the project moved into beta. It suddenly became in the developers' best interest to rush bug-ridden software prematurely into beta.

The rush to beta has been taken to new extremes recently by companies like Corel. In one of the most ambitious Java development projects out there, Corel is creating a Java implementation of it's office suite. When complete, the software package should run on anything from high-end Unix workstations to set-top Web-TV boxes.

In what was obviously a marketing decision (I sincerely hope that the software engineers fought this tooth and nail) Corel released what they are calling a "pre-beta version" of their Office for Java. You can get more information at http://officeforjava.corel.com/. The software is obviously still in the development phase. It is infested with bugs, and most of the features have not been implemented. I can't believe this will make a good impression.

Life Without Beta
Since the Internet allows nearly costless distribution of software, certain companies discovered that they no longer had to ship completely functional software. Patches and bug fixes that had to be mailed out on floppies at the developers expense could now be distributed for free over the Internet. Microsoft and Apple have both used this strategy extensively in recent releases of the operating systems.

Software reliability standards have declined precipitously over the years. Frankly, a lot of shipping commercial software would not qualify as beta by the traditional definition. Bugs that should send a project back into alpha now remain in a shipping product for years and across multiple version upgrades.

The standard industry excuse is that as software becomes more complex, reliability inevitable decreases. This is simply not true. Products from consumer electronics to automobiles have become both more complex and far more reliable over the years because the market rejected unreliable products.

Unfortunately, reliability doesn't sell software, features and price do. The software houses are responding to market forces. While many publications are now making it policy not to review beta software, most users seem resigned to the fact that software will be buggy. Beta software is now assumed to be unstable and poorly tested, and more and more we are hearing "Well, it's only version 1.0. It will take them a while to work the bugs out."

Beta software, you served us well. You will be fondly remembered and dearly missed.

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