The term "beta" will also collapse into irrelevance in downloadable software, predicts Chris Messina, who calls himself director of experience at Flock, a startup developing an open source browser. Users of Microsoft products know that when software products move out of beta, users are flooded with security and quality patches in short order, meaning that version 1.0 isn’t so much a magic milestone as just another point in a continual cycle of development.
"I see gradients of validity where for my mom I might wait until Flock gets to 0.8 before I install it for her," Messina says. "For friends who I like I’ll give them the development version that won’t crash the system, and then for people I don’t like they can have the nightly builds. So I think we’ll have three tracks."
So there you have it, if I don’t like you, go download an
nightly hourly build.
No, just kidding.
But the point stands — software development is indeed becoming more organic, without really even realizing it (or maybe it has been all along, but we’ve fought its natural state for business reasons — after all, selling upgrades is a lucrative bidniz). Sure, you’ve still got holdouts and beta logos plastered all over the place, but the reality is this: software is a process. It’s never really done. The longer we go on pretending that the vaunted one-dot-oh somehow indicates a sense of finality, security or stability, the harder time we’re going to have convincing folks not in the geek world that there will always be bugs, that there are no right answers, that, just like natural systems, we’ve got to design for imperfection, frailty, accidents and hell, the irrationality of human actors.
So listen, I’d read somewhere recently (I forget where — I wasn’t using Flock so I can’t full-text search my history) that this whole BETA program fad is just a way for companies to shirk responsibility for the apps they deploy. It’s like, you call something "beta" and poof, no more responsibility. Well, clearly no one really does read EULAs anymore or you’d know that, beta or not, no one takes responsibility for anything anymore. It’s all the in the EULA, usually in some big bold type like this: WE DON’T CARE IF YOU BLOW UP YOUR COMPUTER WITH OUR SOFTWARE, IT’S NOT OUR FAULT AND THE LAW IS ON OUR SIDE, GET OVER IT (copied from the IE7 beta 2 EULA).
(No, just kidding).
Anyway, I think the point that Schofield makes in his article is a good one, and I enjoyed the chance to talk to him about it. But really folks, and this was raised in that conversation, what the heck are we going to do with desktop apps and the ever-present push towards one-dot-ohs? I don’t see them going away any time soon and yet they simply don’t reflect anything useful, especially since webapps have the luxury of never really worrying about that problem and can be in a constant state of flux and no one really cares… As it is, Thunderbird has been downloading updates every other day, asking me to restart it so that it can update itself… I have no idea what version I’m running — only the knowledge that somebody, somewhere is working on the thing and that its stability comes in fits and spurts. And that’s ok, because I’ve come to Jesse baby, hallelujah!, praise the Ford, Zen-master dojo, taekwon-do and on and on. Yeah, now that software development is becoming more zen-like, how do we help the rest of the world cope with the realities of such uncertainty?