To Launch or Not To Launch - The Benefits Of the Infinite Beta

February 19, 2006

As many of you may have noticed, Google Mail (aka “GMail”) is still labeled/branded as being “in beta”.


This is an interesting thing because I originally got my beta account setup on GMail sometime in the summer of 2004.  This means we’re closing in on two years of the “beta period”.  So, we can ask ourselves why Google insists on leaving the product in beta – and if there are good reasons for this, whether other web software companies should do the same.


At some level, I think Google has distorted the meaning of the word “beta”.  Generally a beta period is intended to have a limited set of early users test the product and provide feedback.  The developer then uses this feedback to refine the product prior to public release (or general “launch”).  The intent is to get many of the issues resolved before the software is unleashed on the masses thereby hopefully reducing the volume of “post production” bugs that are reported.  This makes sense for just about everyone involved (especially the software developer).


Implicit in most beta programs is the following:


  1. Beta users should expect to find some issues and report them  (i.e. the product is likely not quite ready for “prime time” yet).
  2. There should be a reporting mechanism so that these users can report the issues.
  3. Some portion of the reported issues will be resolved by the software developer (usually, what is important enough to fix is up to the developer)
  4. Eventually a “public release” is made once the software is deemed “good enough” by the developer.  


In Google’s case, it seems obvious that they are not really managing a beta program in the traditional sense.


My suspicion is that Google is keeping this (and other products) in beta for one very simple reason:  because they can.  Though the term beta likely has no real legal implications (other than what is defined in the terms of service), there is a perception about beta products that allows for a minimalist set of terms to be offered.  For example, if Google had a “production” (non-beta) web service available, it would be unreasonable of them to state their terms of service to be something like:  “use at your own risk, we reserve the right to turn this off, change our mind, kill the project or whatever for any reason whatsoever which we may or may not decide to ever communicate to you…”  However, for a beta product, just about anything goes.  So, the question is, what possible incentive does Google have to ever take GMail out of beta.  If users have come to accept the beta label (and will gladly use the product anyways), it seems there’s very little incentive.  Given that GMail is free (though I prefer the term “subsidized”), they really don’t have any obligation to ever come out of beta.  


So, having said that, if you are offering software as a web service and not charging direct fees (like a subscription), could you get away with the same thing?  Should you even try?  The answer is:  maybe.  Most users these days expect developers to have a beta period for their software.  Nothing surprising here.  The only risk is that some percentage of customers will likely wait before a product is “launched” as they don’t want to be “beta testers”.  If this set of users is very small (or small enough), there’s no reason not to put a beta product out there – and leave it there, for the same reasons Google seems to be doing it.  Though one could argue that not every software company can get away with what Google does, one can make the counter-argument that Google has “conditioned” the market that using beta software is “ok”.  


My general advice would then be:  If putting a beta label on your software makes it easier for you to get out to market (and start getting some feedback from real customers), then by all means do it.  Too many companies hold on to their software too long in the hopes of making it “perfect”.  Once you’re out there in beta, you can ask yourself when (and if) you ever actually come out of beta.  If your customers (and I use the term loosely) don’t’ have an issue with you being in beta, then there seems to be little incentive to actually “launch” (and likely lots of good reasons why you shouldn’t).  If it’s a good strategy for Google, it might just be a good strategy for you.



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