Gizmodo has just issued A Call for Revolution Against Beta Culture – great article, and boy, do I love the illustration!.
I’m tired of this beta culture that has spread like metastatic cancer in the last few years, starting with software from Google and others and ending up in almost every gadget and computer system around. We need a change.
Yes, the cancer started at software, and spread to all products, yes, we need a change, but I do see a huge difference between software, and especially web-based software vs. anything else.
Gizmodo cites recent examples like the first iPhone 3G, Blue Ray players, Xbox 360, all of which had abnormally high failure rates. Let me add mine: I was stupid enough to by the very first Volvo S80 T6 in 1999, just when Volvo decided the no longer produce tanks, but enter the high performance-luxury market. Huge mistake (my purchase, that is). The damn thing was not a car but a computer network on wheels, and everything that could possibly fail and even more failed – a true lemon.
Worst of all, the car, the iPhone, the cameras … etc were not labelled as “beta” – after all, who in their right mind would drive a “beta car”? So it’s a matter of expectations, when we buy products, we expect them to work, period.
Clearly, the problem is the development process and the time to market, with product cycles shortened and corners cut to keep a continuous stream of cash flowing in. The rush to feed these cycles with increasingly more complex engineering seems to be at odds with shortened development and quality assurance processes, resulting in beta-state first-generation products. This beta culture, the same one that already plagues the web, breeds people who are willing to accept bugs in the name of cutting-edge gear.
Is the web-beta-culture really to blame? I seriously doubt it. Yes, release early, release often is the mantra of Web 2.0, but let’s be real, the deterioration of consumer products has started long before web software was born, in fact we’ve also been cursed with buggy installed software, long before the Web 2.0 era. Except those software bugs are typically ignored, even outright denied.
What’s different in the Web era is the transparency about releasing beta.
“Release early, release often”, and do it via extended public beta periods brings us innovative new services (often just features) that we would not get otherwise. But we have a choice! While not a hacker type, I sometimes try out non-essential beta services, and if I don’t like them I just abandon them. But I am staying away from the most recent Firefox beta (as much as I want the TraceMonkey java speed), because my browser is crucial for me, so I will wait for a stable release.
Then there’s the issue of how bugs get fixed:
- manufactured product: product returns, phone calls, stand in line.. hassle. You’re lucky if you can get away with a firmware update.
- installed software: download patches. See Black Tuesday.
- web-based service: I don’t even notice, the service provider takes care of it behind-the-scenes. That’s why it’s called a service.
- there’s a muddy area though: increasingly web 2. services come with downloadable clients, and that’s a game-changer. Continuous releases when they involve downloads, often not even fully automated are a major pain, especially for those of us (many!) who work on several computers.
Yes, perhaps the “cancer” spreads from the Web-Beta-world. But unlike real cancer, the problem is the metastasis only, not the core.
“Release early, release often” works, with two conditions:
- transparency about the beta status
- it stays in the web world, where fixes are painless to the customer
Everywhere else it leads to Failure.
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- An End To the Beta Culture Nonsense: Could it Happen?