Apple launches Beta Seed for OS X program for end users

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Ever dreamed of an opportunity to try out new versions of OS X before they’re released, but without having to pony up the $99 to become a registered developer? Well, that opportunity’s here: On Tuesday, Apple announced a new initiative, the OS X Beta Seed Program.

As part of the Beta Seed Program, users can register to receive pre-release versions of OS X, starting with OS X 10.9.3, which is available beginning on Tuesday. By trying out the new software and providing feedback to Apple, users can help shape the direction of the company’s desktop computer OS.

While a version of this program previously existed under the name “Appleseed,” that initiative was an invite-only affair that the company offered from time to time. Beta Seed, by comparison, is open to any member of the public with an Apple ID.

The company recommends making a backup before installing any beta software. Running a downloadable Beta Access Utility will make beta seed versions of OS X—and any additional software Apple chooses to provide for testing—visible in the Mac App Store’s Updates pane.

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Once you install the Beta Access Utility, the pre-release software will appear in the Updates pane of the Mac App Store.

Apple releasing public beta software is hardly unheard of: The earliest available version of OS X came in the form of a $30 Public Beta launched in September 2000, more than six months before the OS’s official release; more recently, the company has offered pre-release versions of other software, including Messages, Safari, and Boot Camp. But this is the first time that the company has had any sort of ongoing beta-distribution program to support one of its platforms.

Joining the program does require you jump through several hoops: You have to log in with your Apple ID and accept a confidentiality agreement, which prohibits you from discussing or publicly sharing any information about pre-release software with people who are not also using the pre-release software—according to the agreement, the company will likely provide discussion boards expressly for the purpose of discussing pre-release software. (There are a few minor exceptions—for example, information that Apple discloses publicly is fair game.) You’ll also need to be of legal age to accept the agreement, and be willing to provide Apple feedback about the software you’re trying out when the company asks for it.

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Apple recommends backing up your computer before installing beta software—after all, you're helping test it.

Apple’s agreement also warns you that using pre-release software may be hazardous to the health of your computer, as it may—gasp!—include bugs. The company will also collect anonymized information—including location data—from your computer to help aid in its diagnostics and testing, although you may opt out from such collection in the Your Diagnostics & Usage and Location Services sections of System Preferences. All this collected information will be treated as per the rules set out in Apple’s Privacy Policy.

And, of course, you won’t receive any warranty coverage or support for any problems with the software—this is strictly install at your own risk.

All in all, while this may be a departure from Apple’s famed modus operandi of surprise-and-secrecy, it seems to be par for the course for Tim Cook’s Apple, which has made several moves towards better openness and transparency. Given OS X’s state as a mature piece of software, it’s not surprising for Apple to make this move with its desktop OS—I wouldn’t expect to see the company make a similar move for the younger iOS anytime soon, though.

Updated at 8:55 a.m. ET to clarify the existence of the invite-only Appleseed program.

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