Living in a beta world

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Remember the uncertainty and fear that used to be associated with the phrase “public beta?” You would install an unfinished piece of software that added extensions to your system folder—suddenly your Mac would crash for no apparent reason. Given all the commercial, shareware, and freeware products I’ve tested over the years, I often joked with friends that I was surprised whenever my computer started up.

That’s an old-timey view of betas. Things are much different now. Whereas I used to hold my breath whenever I installed a commercial product (let alone a beta), thanks to Mac OS X and a good group of developers, testing most software these days is no big deal.

The companies offering public betas have changed quite a bit too. Once the domain of small companies without the necessary resources to have a large internal beta program, betas have moved to the large companies as well. I never would have thought Adobe would release a beta product, but here were are in 2007 with not one, but three products in various stages of beta from them— Photoshop, Lightroom, and Soundbooth.

Another giant has emerged an active believer in betas in the last few years as well—Google. Google has so many betas, it’s hard to keep track of sometimes, but that’s a good thing. Currently I’m using Google Mail, Calendar, Picasa, Docs & Spreadsheets, and many others.

Now that Adobe is actively releasing betas—and apparently satisfied with the results because it keeps coming out with more—I have to wonder where Apple and Microsoft stand on this issue.

Both companies have dabbled in betas in the past, but not with any of their major applications. Apple has Boot Camp and Microsoft tested MSN at one point, but where are the betas of iLife—or better yet Logic and Final Cut Pro. I’d love to see a beta of Office for Mac, too, but I just don’t think that will happen.

Or, maybe it will. Microsoft just got through a large beta of Windows Vista and Office for Windows—well maybe that’s not such a good example. But you see what I mean—there is a precedent for this sort of thing.

I think we will continue to see companies embrace beta testing as a way to set the roadmap for their products. Parallels has certainly success with this method and as users we get to see software months before we otherwise would.

So come on Apple—how about posting a few betas and let us give them a spin. We’ll let you know how you are doing before the next big version is due.

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