Saturday, December 03, 2011

On Beyond Beta

Every morning when I first turn on my phone I see a bunch of icons in the upper corner. A big "M." A little phone receiver. A thought bubble. Finally, a little file with a check through it. Each of the first three means something came in since I last looked which requires my attention, in this case, email, a phone call and a text respectively. The last requires the least attention, but is by far the most interesting. It tells me about problems I didn't know I had, and improvements I didn't know I needed. It's the icon informing me that one of the myriad of programs I have was updated overnight.

Now, on the surface, that's a good thing. It's means that somebody is looking at a product or ap or service, and figuring out ways to make it better. True, just as likely they are ironing out bugs that were there when they first shipped it out the door. But considering that there's a more than excellent chance that I didn't pay for what I'm using, it's hard to complain that it wasn't exhaustively stress tested before it was released to me, the unsuspecting and decidedly cheap public.

It's an attitude that the technical world calls "always in beta." Beta used to indicate a product that wasn't ready for prime time, one that was available only to a select group of techies that signed up and were willing to endure a less-than-final iteration as the price of being on the cutting edge. They were expected to put the product through its paces, and provide feedback to the designers and developers so they could make a final version ready for the public. Indeed, it was a geek badge of honor to say, "Yeah, I'm a Beta tester for Google Voice / Microsoft Office / World of Warcraft." Only the coolest nerds need apply, a phrase which admittedly all but defines the term oxymoron.

But times have changed. In the hurry-up, get-it-out-there, build-critical-mass-quickly, all-but-the-first-is-last world that is technology, there is no time to shake anything out until it's all but perfect. And so anything that can be updated is. That means that once a product feels usable it goes out the door, hoping to gain a toehold while not pissing off too many people with its shortcomings. So what if a few of those angry birds explode collateral pigs without a direct hit. Get the public hooked, and we'll update to sturdier swine come version 1.1.

Thankfully this predominantly happens in the world of software and services, and not with physical things. Imagine a refrigerator whose ice maker randomly hurled cubes across the room, or a car whose brakes intermittently went into anti-lock mode, or a treadmill that sped up every time it clicked over a new mile. Needless to say, you would take it back screaming to the store where you got it. Sure, it's probably fixable, but for what you paid you shouldn't have to walk into your kitchen and duck.

And that may be the key: most of the aps and services that come still in beta cost us zero, or precious little. It's not that $.99 is nothing. But at that price point you have to keep your expectations in line with the deliverables. Sure, my Gmail occasionally hangs up, or Skype will drop a video call between me and the guy I'm chatting with in Paris or Pandora will freeze when playing a song. But considering the cost/benefit ratio involved, I guess I can be a little more forgiving. After all, just today I downloaded Google music, and through it uploaded 8000 songs to some far away computer which enables me to listen to any tune I have on demand on my phone at any time. Cost? Absolutely nothing. So I need to chill a bit if it burps every now and again between "She Came In Through" and "The Bathroom Window."

In that light, perhaps we've moved (with apologies to Dr. Seuss) on beyond beta. "New" doesn't capture it, "improved" is a given, while "final" is a state that will never exist. So if Alpha is the initial release phase of a product and Beta is the testing stage, maybe we're now live in Delta, the Greek letter that is representative of change. Whatever you call it, it is a modern truth: few new things these days ever stay the same.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is continually amazed at what he can download at no cost. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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