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What does "Beta" mean?

I’m having a problem with <some non-Google software package> version
<something> Beta. Can you help?

Before I answer that, I want to make sure you understand what the word
“Beta” means. It’s not exactly the same everywhere, but as long as the software
isn’t a Google service, the meaning is fairly consistent.

It means you’re going to have problems with it.

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“Beta” is “β” the second letter of the Greek alphabet, after Alpha
(α).

When used to refer to software, “Beta” is short for “Beta-test” – a period
where the software is technically “feature complete” – meaning no new features
will be added – and presumably stable enough for most common usages to actually
work. (Contrast with “Alpha Test” which happens earlier, and is often not
feature complete and even more unstable.)

But note carefully: it’s a Beta test – hence it’s “Beta
software”. By definition Beta software is not finished and is known to have
bugs, perhaps even serious ones.

“By definition Beta software is not finished and is
known to have bugs, perhaps even serious ones.”

Many Beta tests are private, invitation only. The number of users is kept
controlled so as to be able to more efficiently control the quality of feedback
and to handle the quantity. A private Beta test almost always includes specific
instructions for reporting bugs, and getting support.

During a private Beta, “normal” support channels are not used, and will
often have no clue as to the specifics of the Beta software.

A “public Beta” is nothing more than the incomplete Beta software released
to the public for further testing. Feedback from real-world usage is often very
valuable for identifying problems that need to be resolved before the product
is finally released. You’ll often see a flurry of announcements in the press
when a major product goes into public Beta, because then anyone can use it and
try it out.

Support for public Betas is typically restricted. The manufacturer may
choose the public beta to also test its normal support channels, but quite
often that doesn’t happen. Beta support is both limited, and typically happens
through venues such as support sites or news groups specific to that particular
product’s Beta test.

“The bottom line is that you don’t want to rely on Beta
software – it will have problems.”

The bottom line is that you don’t want to rely on Beta software – it will
have problems. And as I said, support in resolving those problems will be
seriously limited. If you actually plan to use and rely on the software, do
not use the Beta version
. It will fail. Even if you’re lusting after all
the new whiz-bang features, you are asking for trouble if you plan to rely on a
Beta version of almost any software package. Use the most recently released and
fully supported version instead.

Now, if you want to play – if you don’t care that things may fail.
If you don’t care that a bug in the Beta software might crash your computer or
wipe out all your information, then by all means, try the Beta. Be careful to
fully back up, or use a machine you don’t care about and could reformat if the
worst happens. Be sure to help the quality of the released product by reporting
the problems that you do experience through the recommended channels and as
completely as you can. That’s exactly what a Beta is for – collecting the
problems that real people like you experience, and from there determining which
need to be resolved before release.

And then there’s Google.

Google has annoyed a lot of people in the industry by leaving products in
what many call “perpetual Beta”. GMail, for example, has been out for well over
a year, it’s rock solid (from what I hear and experience), and yet it’s still
labeled “Beta”.

As far as I can tell, “Beta” means something else to Google than it does to
the rest of the world. For all intents and purposes, Google apparently treats
Beta as a final release.

As a result, most all of my comments above describing the risks of using
Beta software actually don’t apply if that software from Google and has been
out more than, say, a couple of months.

Now, back to your question:

I’m having a problem with <some non-Google software package> version
<something> Beta. Can you help?

No, I cannot.

Beta software will have problems and the problems will change with each new
Beta release. The manufacturer of that software should have provided specific
support and problem reporting venues that you should use instead, if you’re
helping to test the product.

If you’re not evaluating the Beta, or helping to test the product, then my
recommendation is that you uninstall, and revert to the current
released, non-Beta version of the product.

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16 comments on “What does "Beta" mean?”

  1. 🙂 That would certainly be a candidate, but no … the original question referenced a different product. There are many to choose from, actually.

    Reply
  2. I downloaded IE 7.0. What a mistake! Ended up re-formatting my hard-drive, even though I un-installed it, AND went back to the restore point. Couldn’t even open up web-pages, the files were so corrupted. Don’t do it!!!

    Reply
  3. I have found that some betas are ok and some aren’t but then I suppose that’s exactly the nature of beta software.

    I found that Microsoft Windows Live Messenger BETA was stable until they released the latest beta version, which has compatibility issues with Windows Internet Explorer 7 beta.

    Another questions thats been bugging me lately… what on earth does “beta” mean to Google. Gmail has been Beta for ages, and as you said its perfectly stable. Same goes for Google Local and all the other services that Google label ‘beta’.

    Reply
  4. Beta in gmail, I have heard, has more to do with the fact they are still adding services to it. Notice that is still has been publicly released. To get a gmail account you still have to jump through some hoops.

    Reply
  5. “Notice that is still has been publicly released”
    should read
    “Notice that is still has NOT been…”

    Reply
  6. The only hoop you need to jump through is to get an invite from another GMail user.

    And in that spirit: you can email “askleo at gmail.com” to ask for an invite, and I’ll happily send you one.

    Reply
  7. yeah. I was wondering if the new Internet Explorer 8 beta is safe becuase i kinda want to try it…

    I strongly recommend against trying Beta software, unless you completely backup and be prepared to restore to that backup when things go wrong.

    – Leo
    26-Jan-2009
    Reply
  8. I’m sure glad I read this article and the other Beta article. I will never, repeat never, again try anything that begings with “Beta.”
    I did it once and once is enough for a novice.

    Reply
  9. One useful bit of advice; always, always use a Virtual Machine (VM) for beta testing, especially Windows.

    If you’re using AutoCAD etc. then this may be a slightly different matter but I’m not that sure… never used AutoCAD betas really.

    Reply
  10. I am so pleased I have read this article,it has been most informative and have taken your advise on board.I will not be touching anything referring to beta.

    Reply
  11. So – when Google posts a “warning” that its directions (even walking directions) are “in beta,” does this mean they are unfinished or unreliable? So strange!
    Hope someone can answer this. Thank you.
    RJ

    Reply

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