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Google recently took the Beta label off of Gmail and Google Docs. Gmail has been in beta for over 5 years – with a 3 year private beta. By being in Beta, one could easily write off an issue or even think the accountability and liability might not be theirs. So shouldn’t the ISO put some regulation on this small tag?
Google started with Gmail back on April 7th 2004. They were in a Closed Beta – which meant that you had to get an invitation to use it. However, it wasn’t a difficult thing to get an invitation. My entry into Gmail wasn’t until December of that year.
3 years later – Feb 2nd, 2007 to be exact, Gmail removed the restriction. However, the Beta tag stayed on. It generally went unnoticed until this last July 6th, when Google decided to remove the tagline.
Google Docs had a shorter span – Technically starting in August of 2005. I say technically, because it was launched as a program called “Writely”. Google Spreadsheet came in June of 2006 and by October 10th, the two had merged to start Google Docs. Once again – Beta until July 6th of 2009.
Beta – in technology – generally means “Pre-release”. You have the Pre- Alpha version – which is the first look at a program. Alpha programs are next – Followed by Beta, Release Candidate, RTM: or Release to Manufacturing, THEN General Availability. Usually, Pre-Alpha and Alpha software and hardware is only given out to the “truly geeky” people and developers to break on purpose. By time you are in General Release, you have a level of confidence that it works.
In Google’s case, it was starting to be more in a “Perpetual Beta” stage – which means that it will never leave the Beta stage. There are many programs and sites that are still in or may never leave Beta. However, this is more of an issue than one will lead on to – Especially if it has to do with your pocketbook.
Why would that be? Well look at it this way – I give you a program and tell you it’s in Beta. You use it, then something happens where your data or even your money is exposed and even exploited. You come back to me and say that a bug caused this to happen. I can then turn to you and say “That’s ok. It’s in Beta….”
Accountability – This is a key factor in any software release. Think about it – Right now Windows 7 is in Beta. Well, OK. Release Candidate: but STILL it’s a form of Beta. If you were to have a problem with the program, you would report it and then go about fixing the problem or reinstalling the software. Unless it’s a critical error that could bring Microsoft down, you are not going to get any more attention than the report form you get from the company.
What could have stopped Google from saying “Well, the program is in beta, so we can’t be held accountable?” Not a good strategy in any business plan. Especially since in some cases, you are paying for your Gmail account. After all, for $50 an email address, you can ditch your email server and let Google handle all your communications. If you are paying for a system, would you want it to be in Beta for 5 years?
I do go to a website that has a currency exchange to it. They are still in Beta, yet they handle money. While I don’t put much stock in this company, what could stop this site from emailing me and saying: “The last 3 months, we found a bug, so therefore we are going to start everyones’ accounts over. After all, this is a Beta system.”
The International Organization of Standards – or ISO (which is short for Isos – a greek word for “Equal”)- needs to step in here. Why ISO? Well they have a better reach than any government. You would basically have boundaries. That web site I mentioned earlier is not only located in the US, but also has a location in another country. Therefore, if a problem arose, it might be harder for me to get satisfaction.
Here is the suggestion: Alpha = 9 – 12 months. Beta = 3-6 months. Release Candidates = 1 month for 3 RC. If any product or service needs more time, then they must move back to a previous status (with the exception for RC – they must move back to Beta) and keep doing so until they can get to a General Release Status. If a site or program cannot achieve General Release in a specific timeframe, then they must be pulled offline – especially if they are making currency exchange.
Here is where things get hairy – if a product or service is asking you to PAY while they are in Beta, then they should label accordingly. Labeling a site P2P Beta (Pay to Play Beta) comes to mind. If a site is in P2P Beta, then they must have a structured policy in place on issues and when a person can ask for compensation.
Why is this such an issue? Well, let’s put this into perspective. The best way is to talk about an article posted In Wired Magazine on 11-15-99. The RIAA was just getting a handle on music piracy. Therefore they decided to make a lawsuit with one company that was just starting up. The name of that company: Napster. During the interview, Napster CEO Eileen Richardson said on the lawsuit – “For *expletive* we’re still in beta…. We are freaking four months old.”
If you have software or hardware that is contributing to an illegal activity, do you think you should be exonerated simply because the software or hardware is in beta?
Standardization of the terms will do two things – bring accountability and give the term “Alpha”, “Beta”, “RC” and “General Availability” a sense of stature. It will help those who might have been wronged and thought a site or service would be safe simply because they are using a program that over 100 million other people are using. And frankly, it’s just annoying to see something in Beta for over 5 years and making money on it.
BTW – if a program or service ends, it’s called End of Service.