Don't be fooled by Google's phony 'beta' label

A typical release cycle for software development includes something called the beta-testing phase. The idea is to improve the product by enabling users, rather than developers or professional testers, to provide feedback.

The relationship between the software company and the beta testers is usually based on barter. No money is exchanged. The software company gets test services from the user, and the user gets familiarity with an upcoming product, familiarity that may provide some personal or professional benefit.

One major current example: Microsoft's upcoming Windows 7 operating system is currently in "beta." The company opened up the beta to the public on Jan. 9, then stopped offering or allowing downloads of the beta on Feb. 10. The testing and feedback continues, and no money is changing hands between Microsoft and beta testers.

Microsoft no doubt hopes to get Windows 7 on the market by Christmas. Once it goes on sale, the operating system will be a "shipping" product. Microsoft will start charging money for it.

Those of us who comment for a living on the quality of software take very seriously the distinction between "beta" software and "shipping" software. Broadly speaking, features and functionality that appear to be headed for the shipping product are fair game for criticism. Things like performance and stability, which will no doubt be tweaked, well, we tend to give companies the benefit of the doubt. It is, after all, just an unfinished "beta." The software company isn't making money from the "beta," so it doesn't make sense to criticize aspects of it that may be corrected in the shipping version, which the software company will sell for perfectly good money.

What about Google?

What are we to make of Google's "beta" products and "experimental" features?

Just like Microsoft and many other software companies, Google designates a huge number of its many online services as beta, and many features as merely "experimental."

For example, did you know that Gmail is still in "beta," and has been in the "beta" stage of development for five years?

Some of Gmail's best features aren't "real" features, but designated by the company as "experimental." Gmail Labs launched in June, and since then the company has posted more than 35 "experimental" apps or features. The company explained its labs concept in a Gmail blog post:

"The idea behind Labs is that any engineer can go to lunch, come up with a cool idea, code it up and ship it as a Labs feature. To tens of millions of users. No design reviews, no product analysis, and to be honest, not that much testing. Some of the Labs features will occasionally break."

All new Gmail Labs features and apps are announced by a casual blog post on the Gmail blog. This low-key launch is designed to support the idea that the new features are merely "experimental."

Don't buy it. You can't!

Despite tossing around the words "beta" and "experimental," the reality is that Google simply co-opts these words from the world of for-pay software in order to protect itself from scrutiny and criticism.

Because Google's "experimental" and "beta" products and features attract millions of people to choose Google over its competitors, it is also fair game to criticize these same offerings and use them as reasons why you might want to avoid Google and instead embrace Google's competitors.

How much money has Google made from Gmail? The business model is and will always be an "attract users and sell advertising" proposition, regardless of when it arbitrarily chooses to remove the word "beta" from the Gmail logo. So what makes it "beta," exactly?

And the "low-key" launch via casual blog post? Ha! Google knows that this has more or less the same impact as advertising during the Super Bowl.

This week, Google launched a potentially cool new feature for Gmail that adds your city, state and country to your Gmail e-mail signature. It mentioned it almost in passing on the blog. But as of this posting, a search for "Gmail signature location" without the quotation marks brings in well over a half-million results. The feature has been covered by every major technology publication, and major news publications like The Washington Post . Google knows that announcing Labs features on the blog will set off a cascading explosion of coverage that exceeds an official press release and big-money marketing campaign by the likes of, say, Yahoo or HP.

The truth is that designating new features as "experimental" and announcing them only on a blog is just a charade, a marketing gimmick. It's just Google's way of having it both ways. It launches apps and features that grab market share, attract eyeballs and give it the traffic it needs to make billions of dollars per fiscal quarter. But gosh, gee, it's just little old us trying out a few ideas, so don't criticize!

Hey, we can all play that game. This publication you're reading now uses a revenue model similar to Google's. You're reading this for free, but the publication makes money by selling the advertising you see on this page. The publishing company pays me to write it out of money earned from those advertising dollars.

But you know what? I've decided that this article is still in "beta." My opinions are "experimental." Even though I'm (theoretically) influencing thousands or millions of people, stealing readers from the competition, earning money for myself and the publisher, and elevating my own personal fame, reputation and glory with these brilliant ideas, they are in fact beyond reproach because I'm calling this column "beta." I'm not finished with it yet, and my ideas are mere trial balloons.

I don't want any disagreement posted in the comments area while I'm at the bank cashing my check. Gimme a break.

New rule: If a "product" is attracting eyeballs and making money, if the users don't know they're beta testers, if the beta is unlimited in time and in scope, and if the product will never, ever be offered for sale anyway, the words "beta" and "experimental" have no meaning at all. And the products are open to criticism.

I'm proposing that we all stop taking Google's "beta" and "experimental" labels seriously, and just see them for what they are: Marketing gimmicks.

[Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.]

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