in General Coding

Web 2.0 and the beta debacle

So you’re standing at the airport gate, ready to board your transatlantic flight on Google Airlines, and happen to look out through the large glass windows at the airplane. Just above the multi-colored Google Airlines logo, you notice four barely visible little gray letters: BETA.

A film of sweat forming on your forehead, you ask the gate attendant (a Mr. Page) how it is that the airplane still is in beta when you’re flying real customers to real destinations. “Oh that,” Mr. Page replies, “that just means that we still plan on adding major features and are continually improving our product.”

But isn’t a beta the same as a test version?” you ask.  Mr. Page shrugs, “Google Airlines will likely continue to be in beta for years,” he explains, “Have a nice flight!”

Ok, so what Larry Page really said, back in 2005 when referring to the continued presence of the beta label on products such as Gmail, years after their public launch, was:

It’s kind of an arbitrary thing. We could take beta off all of our products tomorrow, and we wouldn’t actually have accomplished anything. If it’s on there for five years because we think we’re going to make major changes for five years, that’s fine. It’s really a messaging and branding thing.

We’re now in late 2006 and Gmail remains in ‘beta.’ In my opinion Google would accomplish a lot by removing the beta label. For starters, they would tell the world that they stand behind the version of the product that currently is in use, rather than implicitly stating that, as a commenter on Digg so succinctly remarked, “the eternal beta is Google’s method of unaccountability.” How funny it would be if Google were to practice some truth-in-labeling and instead go with something like

Version of Gmail logo that is a bit more honest

As far as the whole messaging and branding thing goes, Google is of course applying the term in the Web 2.0 sense, meaning that modern web applications are constantly undergoing improvement, so the reasoning goes that they are always in beta.

Which makes explicitly displaying a beta label meaningless. Yes, Evolution is founded on the idea of constant change and improvement, sometimes through trial and error, but that doesn’t mean that we think of the environment we live in as the beta version :)

The reality is that the fundamental concept of a beta just doesn’t make sense when talking about a web 2.0 application, because a beta implies that at some point in the future the beta period will end and will be replaced by a release version of the application.

But because being out in the public domain is an intrinsic part of the very iterative design process of web 2.0 apps, the traditional alpha/beta/release candidate/gold release model is completely turned on it’s head. In other words, modern apps like Flickr (which by the way have replaced the beta label with the far more creative ‘Gamma’ label) and Digg have to grow organically out in the world, as it were, because they are so extensively based on aggregation and syndication and other exchanges of services and content between their application and the web as a whole.

While Web 1.0 apps are sort of grown in greenhouses, and then brought out and planted in the public domain fully grown, Web 2.0 apps are merely seedlings when planted out in the public web, which is where the site is nursed into maturity (or falls victim to the sometimes unforgiving elements of the web.)

As Gmail goes, the seedling or incubation phase was probably the early period when access to the product was invitation only, in which the product was being tested by real users and used for real-life activities, but in which the user base was limited. After that, when the product became publicly available, continuing to call it a beta is akin to Starbucks calling small drinks ‘Tall’ drinks. They do it not because it has anything to do with reality or because it in any way makes sense (except if you’re in the marketing dept.); they do it because they can.