Rhodri Marsden: The notion of ‘beta’ software is increasingly redundant

Cyberclinic
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The Independent Tech

Is it a bad idea to use beta software? If you’re as despicable a human being as |I am, you’ll have noticed how the internet age has made you unreasonably greedy and impatient. When emails don’t arrive, you repeatedly refresh the inbox while cursing under your breath; it’s not enough to hear a lo-fi streaming version of a song, you want to immediately download the whole album from which it’s taken, in premium quality, with cover art, lyrics and a personal note from the artiste in question; and when it comes to software, you’re compelled to use the latest features as soon as they’ve been implemented by the programmers – even if they aren’t ready for the world to use yet.



Installing beta, or pre-release software, makes us feel part of a privileged coterie who hang about languidly at the cutting edge of technology, performing complex computing manoeuvres that the plebs don’t even imagine are possible. But we’re merely unpaid guinea pigs. The software might fail, it might chew up our data and make us screech with displeasure – but us experiencing that failure is the very reason programmers allow us to use it. The more problems we encounter, the more problems that they’re able to iron out – as long as we take a moment to tell them about those problems, which we frequently don’t, because we’re unreasonably impatient, remember?



With online beta services, things are a bit different. Take offerings from Google, such as Mail, Docs and Calendar; Gmail, for instance, has been around for more than five years, but is still in beta despite being relied upon by over 113 million users – along with many businesses who actually pay to use it. Cynics would say that this provides Google with an opportunity not to offer any customer support (it’s only “in development”, after all) while Google would counter that such services undergo constant finessing and thus could never really be said to be “finished”.

Gmail has the occasional problem, but on the whole it’s an exceptionally sturdy beast – while poorly-written, supposedly-complete, fairly expensive software packages (you’ll no doubt be able to think of your own examples) can present almighty difficulties. If this tells you anything, it’s that the term “beta” is becoming increasingly meaningless; there’s well-written beta software, and dreadful beta software that’ll drive you spare. Unfortunately, you often won’t know which is which until you’ve slipped into guinea pig mode and tried them out.

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