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What does it mean to be a beta ?

March 12, 2012

As you may know, we're in the process of launching our new reporting tool and at the moment it's in beta for our existing customers.
But what does 'in beta' mean exactly ? Find out by reading on...

According to the 'Hackers Dictionary', the Jargon File, the term 'beta' has been with us since the 60s when IBM built the very first large scale computer programs. As always though, it's usage has altered a lot and the phrase 'in beta' didn't really enter the public mind until Google launched it's webmail system as a beta.
Up until then, it was really only programmers or project managers who used the term, with something being 'alpha' meaning it wasn't ready for use at all, and 'beta' meaning it was essentially complete but not yet full refined or tested.

But GMail was available for five years in this 'unfinished' state, and it's very common in modern software development to adopt rapid, early-and-often releases rather than major updates on a longer timescale.
So what does 'beta' really mean ?

For the team lead at the popular source control provider Fog Creek, beta can mean 'going dark':

"We have a strong rule against publishing road-maps for products, for a simple reason: we don’t like to disappoint you. We hate promising you’ll have some awesome new feature in Kiln 45.7, like telekinetic abilities, and then smashing your hopes most excellently by announcing we’ve had to delay them until 45.8. Instead, we prefer to surprise you each release with piles of new goodies. A kind of monthly Christmas for Kiln, if you will."
Benjamin Pollack

For Joel Spolsky, talking about his new Trello list-of-lists collaboration tool, beta means:

"It’s delivered continuously ... A feature that you built and tested, but didn’t deliver yet because you’re waiting for the next major release, becomes inventory. Inventory is dead weight. ... It’s not exhaustively tested before being released ... because bugs are fixed in a matter of hours, not months, so the net number of “bugs experienced by the public” is low."
Joel Spolsky

Certainly the way we see it here at Extravision is we'd much rather give you something amazing now and some more later rather than 3 amazing things much later. We do this by aiming for only a month or so between each update.
And we certainly want to know as soon as possible if something doesn't work for our users so we can make you happier. This provides a good check that we're always heading in the right direction with new features or improvements.
But shortening the time between releases can be a big change for the development process as it means we'll be making changes more often to the running code; we no longer wait till there is a large batch of changes to deploy in a single 'large drop' with a lengthy period of testing during which we refuse to add new features.
This causes knock on issues with making sure everything is tested, integrated and generally working well, but allows use to be a lot more responsive and agile.

So we have a 'beta'- this is something we can update more rapidly than the live site as we hear what you like and don't like, the things you use most and the things you use less. Not everything in it may have been tested as well as everything else, but while we're doing that testing there's no reason why it can't be used more widely.
So internally we're now using this as the main day to day reporting tool, a process the IT industry calls 'dog fooding'; using your own product yourself.

In this way, although any bug is bad, it's less bad if we find it rather than our customers find it!
We can also keep the good internal momentum of rapid changes, without having to worry about temporarily breaking anything, or having a piece of the application that doesn't really look good enough to get out the door.
And we can also gradually add more and more clients to the system which is useful in case it's the 101th client that breaks the metaphorical donkey's back.

Posted by Tom Chiverton
New Features, Technology

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