When it comes to software, a beta version is fairly commonplace. It fits in the release cycle somewhere between creating and final release. The idea is to improve the product by enabling users, rather than developers or professional testers, to provide feedback.
The relationship between the software company and the beta testers is usually based on barter. No money is exchanged. The software company gets test services from the user, and the user gets familiarity with an upcoming product, familiarity that may provide some personal or professional benefit.
One major current example: Microsoft's upcoming Windows 7 operating system is currently in 'beta'. The company opened up the beta to the public on January 9, then stopped offering or allowing downloads of the beta on February 10. The testing and feedback continues, and no money is changing hands between Microsoft and beta testers.
Microsoft no doubt hopes to get Windows 7 on the market by Christmas. Once it goes on sale, the operating system will be a 'shipping' product. Microsoft will start charging money for it.
Those of us who comment for a living on the quality of software take very seriously the distinction between 'beta' software and 'shipping' software. Broadly speaking, features and functionality that appear to be headed for the shipping product are fair game for criticism.
Things like performance and stability, which will no doubt be tweaked, well, we tend to give companies the benefit of the doubt. It is, after all, just an unfinished 'beta'. The software company isn't making money from the 'beta', so it doesn't make sense to criticise aspects of it that may be corrected in the shipping version, which the software company will sell for perfectly good money.
What about Google?
What are we to make of Google's 'beta' products and 'experimental' features?
Just like Microsoft and many other software companies, Google designates a huge number of its many online services as beta, and many features as merely 'experimental'.
For example, did you know that Gmail is still in 'beta', and has been in the 'beta' stage of development for five years?
Some of Gmail's best features aren't 'real' features, but designated by the company as 'experimental'. Gmail Labs launched in June, and since then the company has posted more than 35 'experimental' apps or features.
The company explained its labs concept in a Gmail blog post: "The idea behind Labs is that any engineer can go to lunch, come up with a cool idea, code it up and ship it as a Labs feature. To tens of millions of users. No design reviews, no product analysis, and to be honest, not that much testing. Some of the Labs features will occasionally break".
All new Gmail Labs features and apps are announced by a casual blog post on the Gmail blog. This low-key launch is designed to support the idea that the new features are merely ‘experimental'.
NEXT PAGE: Don't buy it you can't
When it comes to software, traditionally 'beta' versions are pre-release products that are being tested by users for free. However, Google appears to have a number of its products still classed as 'beta' after, in some cases, quite a few years. We take a look at just what Google is up to.
Don't buy it. You can't!
Despite tossing around the words 'beta' and 'experimental', the reality is that Google simply co-opts these words from the world of paid-for software in order to protect itself from scrutiny and criticism.
Because Google's 'experimental' and 'beta' products and features attract millions of people to choose Google over its competitors, it is also fair game to criticise these same offerings and use them as reasons why you might want to avoid Google and instead embrace Google's competitors.
How much money has Google made from Gmail? The business model is and will always be an "attract users and sell advertising" proposition, regardless of when it arbitrarily chooses to remove the word 'beta' from the Gmail logo. So what makes it 'beta', exactly?
And the 'low-key' launch via casual blog post? Ha! Google knows that this has more or less the same impact as advertising during high-profile sporting events.
Recently, Google launched a potentially cool new Gmail feature that adds your city and country to your signature in Gmail. It mentioned it almost in passing on the blog. But a search for 'Gmail signature location' brings in well over a half-million results. The feature has been covered by technology and news publications around the world. Google knows that announcing Labs features on the blog will set off a cascading explosion of coverage that exceeds an official press release and big-money marketing campaign by the likes of, say, Yahoo or HP.
The truth is that designating new features as 'experimental' and announcing them only on a blog is just a charade, a marketing gimmick. It launches apps and features that grab market share, attract eyeballs and give it the traffic it needs to make billions.
In my eyes, if a 'product' is attracting eyeballs and making money, if the users don't know they're beta testers, if the beta is unlimited in time and in scope, and if the product will never, ever be offered for sale anyway, the words 'beta' and 'experimental' have no meaning at all. And the products are open to criticism.
I'm proposing that we all stop taking Google's 'beta' and 'experimental' labels seriously, and just see them for what they are: marketing gimmicks.