Tech Life Bitter about Beta

Beta is Dead

ed: Reading this article in the context of the recent rise and fall of Orkut service might give you the impression I’m pissed at the Orkut folks. Nothing could be further from the truth… I actually wrote this article late last week. Thing is, I don’t think I’m the target demographic for such services (looking for sex and/or friends), but I am an advocate of treating customers with respect.

I’m the midst of writing a blurb on the ever growing number of social networking services. One thing I noticed right out of the gate is that these services like to use the term BETA in their title. Friendster, Tribe, Orkut… sitting there right in the logo is the term Beta.

What does word mean? The short response is “prepared to be screwed”.

A bit of history. The term Beta means something to software geeks. It’s a milestone in software development which roughly equates to “We believe this software is suitable for customers who are interested in seeing a preview, but it might explode. Really.” Betas were often released to select customers for feedback which, given the product was not complete, had a chance of making it into the shipping product.

Back in the early 90s at Borland, we had two other terms similar to Beta that we used to describe the state of the software. There was Alpha which meant “Well, if you stand on the other side of the room, it looks like a product, but lord god, don’t touch anything.” On the other side of the spectrum, there was Gamma which meant, “We’re done except for issues which would block us from shipping.” Similar to Beta, Gammas were released to customers with the hope they might find obvious errors that we overlooked because we hadn’t had a day off in four months.

At every company since Borland, Alpha, Beta, and Gamma existed in some form. The interesting one has always been Beta because Alphas were a management sham to give us the impression stuff was moving forward. Gammas were anticlimactic because, well, the software was done and it would take an act of God to stop it from shipping. Betas actually got in customers hands which meant we were motivated to clean-up our mess. Betas were validation. Betas were information.

Netscape screwed it all up for everyone, forever. In a good way.

Simple math. The software Netscape (or Mosaic Communications, at the time) was shipping a (duh) web browser. Implicit in the usage model of this software was the idea that you, the user, had a Internet connection which meant you had the means of downloading the software.

Given this emerging handy distribution model, an overall “let’s do shit fast” company philosophy, and (I’m guessing now) a background on long standing Unix traditions, Netscape began releasing free Betas of their Navigator software. Folks were scratching their head about this move at the time, wondering “How are they going to make money?”

At the time, the money was coming from enterprises who a) “got” web browsers and b) purchased site licenses for the browsers. Netscape sales folks would comb download logs, see what companies had employees downloading the browser, call ’em up, and sell ’em site license. Nice model. Too bad about that whole Microsoft screwing.

At Netscape, the concept of Betas had undergone it’s first definition change. It moved from “A use-at-your-own-risk release for select customers to a use-at-your-own risk for anyone who cared.” Cutting edgers like myself loved it because it moved us to the bleeding edge. Netscape loved it because they got free beta testing. Corporate IT types were still trying to grok what a browser actually meant to the enterprise, so they didn’t much care that there was pre-release software all over the computers they were responsible for maintaining. Everyone’s happy. Or ignorant. Same thing, really.

The Netscape model of software development and distribution caught on. Suddenly, everyone was releasing betas and try-before-you-buys via the web. Yay! No more middle man! Better yet, I don’t have to go to Frys! Fucking-A!

Present day. Friendster has gone from a primal meme to a Kleiner-funded start-up. All of this success on the backs of a community that appears to be A-OK with Friendster’s #1 feature — it’s slow as shit. I was an active member of that community for a good couple of months and as I was nodding off waiting for the web page to load, I’d take solace in the fact that, well, the logo says it’s a Beta, so I can’t really complain about the performance… it’s pre-release, right?


Friendster is not Beta by any definition that I know. There are almost HALF A MILLION people in my Friendster personal network . You’re telling me that Friendster is Beta when there’s an active population the size of Las Vegas JUST in my personal network?


The term Beta being used by Friendster, Tribe, and now Orkut has nothing to do with the maturity of the software, the size of the community, or the eventual feature set. It’s a scam. The term Beta is sitting there waiting. It will vanish the moment the population for the respective service reaches some unknown size where some folks with significant spreadsheets can safely say, “We can now start charging for this service and we won’t lose a statistically significant portion of our population”. Translation: We can charge for it and survive as a business.

I’ve got no problem with the goal. I spent a good portion of the late 90s watching very bright people spend massive amount of moneys on tremendously stupid ideas, so actually having a business plan can’t hurt. My issue lies with the word. Beta.

Friendster et all aren’t saying, “Try at your own risk” with their Beta label. They’re saying, “It’s our call when we’re going to screw you for cash.” Uncool. Unclear. And disrespectful of the community.

9 Responses

  1. Beta is Dead! Long Live Beta!

    I was thinking about this just the other day and purposely posted that only people that wanted to *test* software and wouldn’t mind *crashing* should download a particular beta version.

    No one read it, of course, but at least I didn’t have any digital guilt from it.

  2. The problem with modern beta is its biggest strength; beta versions now must be stable. You think grandma in Ohio is going to care why Oldster v1.0b crashes her computer? No, and neither will my 14 year old sister. So, ok, great, from now on we only release betas that are fundamentally ready for wide release. But, uh, that’s gamma. In other words, we now basically go from alpha to finished product with no real middle ground. I thought the point of beta was to get help with admittedly imperfect code from a large group of people that you picked and would prepare the software for general release, but as you point out Rands this is certainly no longer the Way It Works. I wonder if this has anything to do with the general state of bugginess lack of security in programming. Or maybe this is just golden age of software whining, and everything’s just as stable as it ever was.

  3. Rands has it on the nose with the Orkut/Friendster scam. There are exceptions, however. I was a “charter” member of (long before the pretty pretty pastel graphics and *gasp* pictures of the people you were being offered). When Match went into a paying service all the original charter members were offered free lifetime memberships. Smart marketing? Just trying to keep the member base stable? Who knows.

  4. choobeez 20 years ago

    haven’t you downloaded the latest patch?

  5. Uh, bullsh*t!


  6. The issue with Friendster is that it’s _very_ beta… they’re using beta servers or something. Are the Friendster servers powered by the new Pentium with MMX technology? Are there not enough of them, or what? It seems like a big convoluted pet project that’s outgrown the hardware. An always-on machine with a static IP and domain name can probably handle a smallish blog. The same machine cannot handle millions of trucker hat-wearing users.

  7. Gandalf 20 years ago


    Thank you very much for suggessting me an idea !

  8. Great post–really nice writing!