The death of the beta

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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."

Guardian Unlimited Technology | Are you a dummy for beta software?

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?

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

3 thoughts on “The death of the beta”

  1. I’m a developer and try hard entrepreneur so my view of the world is biased in that direction. But, doesn’t it seem that there is too much emphasis on the early adopter crowd? With the betas, and the constant updates? Say your mum has finally mastered the world of email, but the email client’s stability fluctuates, or randomly updates with fixes to obscure features, or with even more features she doesn’t need. Do you think she cares? She wants email, and she wants it to work. The world is complex enough, software should be dumbing the world down not making it more complex.

  2. Hey Alex, not sure I think software should be “dumbing the world down” per se — maybe allowing us to make smarter and more effective decisions? And to use our time better? In which case, what made sense two years ago and is now commonly understood may no longer apply… consider using folders extensibly to organize bookmarks… once you get past, y’know, 200 bookmarks, it’s impossible to manage them or remember which folder contains what; hence tagging!

    So if we let software grow stagnant and whither on the vine, so-to-speak, you get stuck in old models of thinking which don’t reflect the complexity and influx of data that’s bombarding us all today. Consider spam — without constantly improving our software it’s more likely that my mom will just give up if she doensn’t get taken advantage of before it comes to that.

    Anyway, I agree that we ought not focus so intensely on early-adopters all the time — what I’m suggesting instead is that we teach a new conception or perception of software development that understands that software needs to change and be maintained.

    Consider this: should history classes only teach what we knew in the 50s or should our textbooks constantly be maintained to reflect new information that has been revealed since? It’s an ecosystem out there — and we’ve got to stay vigilant to the realities that exist; that software was once measured as ’95, ’98 and 2000 doesn’t mean that we need continue this trend into the future, only that we must acknowledge that that was a historical means of measuring completeness that simply no longer applies.

  3. When you release something into the public realm, you do have responsibilities! You have responsibilities to your community. The Beta tag, whether on software, a web site, or a heart Defibrillator- G*d forbid, does not absolve you of accountability. What remedies are available to an injured party is relative to the time, place, and their status in the community. Your risk should be considered and the need to at least take a moment to try and act conscientiously is often overlooked.

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