Not so long ago, the term “beta” as it applied to software meant not ready for prime time—through initial QA yes, but still in testing with beta users who were initially (nearly always) inside the organization or close kin to the business.
A beta user ‘back in the day’ was not defined as ‘anyone with an Internet connection.’ A beta user wasn’t someone invited by someone else holding a secret code. The role of the beta in development was tightly controlled.
Betas were a form of end user testing, prior to introducing the product to “The Customer,” and The Customer was generally a risk-averse enterprise that never wanted rev 1.0 of anything, let alone a “beta” (read: ick!) version. These enterprises, with good reason, had not only “not crossed” the chasm yet; they hadn’t even heard that a dip in the road was coming.
I spent a lot of time beta-testing software inside large organizations—Kodak for one, in the security management systems division. As a technical publications department in charge of a 30-volume library of user documentation, we – along with QA – were the last stop before general availability.
In 1991, being a beta-tester for software on its way to hundreds of thousands of users was cool – especially if you liked detective work. And I did. But trust beta software? Put it in the hands of potential customers? If you’d said that then, I would have said: You must be nuts. What about bugs? What about data? What about crashing? What about….everything?
Today’s beta experience is entirely different—not just on the beta user’s side, but on the provider’s side too.
The only thing the same? I remain the quintessential beta user. ;-)
I’m the one who rushed onto blogger, to orkut, to flickr, to friendster, to bubbleshare, to tribe, to jotspot, to writely, to just about every application with a rounded-edge logo and promise to listen to me.
And that is key.
The role of the beta release today is to invite customers inside the organization -- not just to find bugs and get that nebulous “buy-in,” but also to feed their interest and nurture their passions, because a beta user today won’t spend time on an application unless it’s something that moves them.
The unspoken intent of software/service providers in releasing beta products today is to actually listen to and incorporate the best of the feedback from people who pre-love the product, to develop a lexicon with a user base that will power conversation throughout the evolution of the product.
In addition, because beta users are connected to – and talking to -- one another via the net, their shared passion and resulting buzz have the potential to transform xyz beta into the next big brand.
Why is the beta of today so different? Several factors have emerged to change the beast that is beta in these times we’ve (for better or worse) dubbed Web 2.0.
• The Porous Enterprise: The boundaries between the enterprise and its constituents are thinning to the point of near invisibility. People and functions that were once inside the organization are outside, and those that were once outside are inside. Combined with open APIs, beta users are subtly turned into members of the development team – they are proxy-employees and customers at the same time.
• Who’s a User: Users of software and services often aren’t walled off in cubes of BigCos anymore. A user is not distinguished by the location of their ergonomically-correct office chair, but by their passions and preferences. Users want to participate, to co-create, to help organizations bring product to market because they are happier with the product when they’re involved.
• The Need for Speed: Getting customers just what they want as quickly as possible has trumped the fear of failure. Fortunately, “getting the word out” and product out over the net removes barriers to speed.
• The Train’s Arrived: Because of the conversational nature of the Internet, clued organizations and their customers are congregating at and co-habiting the same shared online space. Businesses unwilling to become vulnerable to the transparent wants of their customers risk losing them to competitors. In larger numbers, organizations are getting naked and daring their rivals to do the same.
These are just some of the reasons why the rush to “Betatize” the products and services of the net doesn’t bother me. I think it’s glorious. I want to belong to seventeen different companies/teams at once. I want to see how some of these products overlap and connect—or could. I want to be the six steps ahead on the new user track when suddenly no one can live without the next great web tool. I want to be poster girl and customer and documenter and marketer and bug detective and product manager all at once for companies I don’t even work for.
Why do people like me savor this role? Because we’ve spent too many years relegated to tightly-defined roles and responsibilities, office chairs, divisions, departments, practices, and performance reviews.
So, how will we know when all this beta and Web 2.0 stuff is done? How do we graduate to 3.0?
I’ll tell you: When I become your most important customer, your best vendor, and your most valuable employee all at once. When it’s no longer B2C or B2B – When it’s M2Y (Me to You).
That’s the promise of the web, and that’s why Beta’s okay with me.