Stretching The Definition Of “Beta”

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The race to incorporate the latest innovations and enhancements into Internet software programs has major Internet players and startups alike radically changing the meaning of the beta test.

Formerly a period of controlled testing, the beta has evolved into an open forum in which hundreds of thousands of users can gain access to beta code. The result: more rigorous testing and a new way to distribute software, say users and vendors.

Microsoft Corp., Netscape Communications Corp., SunSoft Inc., Progressive Networks Inc., and VocalTec Inc. are just a few Internet developers putting their unfinished wares on the Net.

While desktop applications, World Wide-Web browsers, and add- ons remain the primary beta wares freely available, Microsoft took the process to the next level last week when it made available for free over the Internet its first Internet Information Server.

Users are faced with the proverbial double-edged sword.

“It seems that wherever I turn, the software I am downloading is a beta product,” said Irwin Greenhar, a marketing manager with JBS Inc., in Houston. “It’s great that I am able to get the latest and greatest stuff right away, but oftentimes I wonder if the glitches that I have to put up with are worth it.”

Dealing with unhappy users is worth the risk, said Mike Homer, vice president of marketing for Netscape, based in Mountain View, Calif. Netscape was one of the first to take the beta testing process out of the closet when it rolled out its Navigator Web browser in the summer.

“As long as you clearly identify the software as a beta product, then users’ expectations should not be set too high,” said Homer. “Having millions of people testing your software is the best thing possible because they are very likely to find bugs and glitches that may not be caught otherwise.”

Netscape has rolled out a program, dubbed “Bugs Bounty,” to encourage the reporting of flaws in the beta versions of its products. In addition, Netscape has recently begun adding “time bombs” to its beta releases that will disable the product after a certain date.

While Microsoft officials agreed with the benefits of an expanded and open beta process, several drawbacks come with it, said Greg Leake, lead product manager for Blackbird at Microsoft. Besides making the beta of its Internet Explorer 2.0 and Gibraltar available, the Redmond, Wash., developer plans to release its Web authoring tool, code-named Blackbird, to anyone once it reaches beta testing in the first quarter of next year.

“You have to make sure that the code is pretty rock solid before putting it out on the Web, so the beta is really just a final tune-up before the launch,” said Leake.

Not every company has had success with public betas. NetCom Online Communications Services Inc.’s NetCrusier browser has yet to be tested openly on the Web.

“There is still something to be said for control and manageability,” said John Ziesler, senior vice president at NetCom, based in San Jose, Calif. “Putting something on the Web for all to see is a big task when it comes to managing.”

Still, many users are hungry for technology and want anything that they can get their hands on.

“The faster that it comes out the better,” said Tim Bernel, a financial consultant at Bernel and Associates Inc., in St. Paul, Minn., “even if it is a beta product that is a little shaky.”

 

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