Thursday, October 26, 2006

But All the Cool Kids Have It

Fifteen years ago, few people other than programmers had ever heard of "beta" software. Then came the Web, and with it the hype of the dot-bomb bubble. "Beta" quickly became a buzzword as non-professionals slowly started reading what industry people wrote and mixed with them in forums and newsgroups where all had a common interest, such as rec.aviation.piloting, alt.usage.english, even alt.swedish.chef.bork.bork.bork.

Getting access to a beta program in 1996 generally required either knowing someone at a software company or stumbling across an announcement of an upcoming version, then registering, providing information on your technical background and explaining why you should be allowed to participate. If you got in, you were pummeled with warnings about the software being unfinished and buggy, that it was definitely Not Ready for Prime Time, and that you shouldn't install it on any machine you weren't prepared to rebuild completely.

The flourishing warez scene, once relegated to some private BBSes and FTP sites, increased the availability of these beta builds dramatically. If you couldn't get into a beta program, you probably knew someone who had access to a warez server. Or you had a FOAF who could.

As the bubble grew, so did the marketing hype. Companies realised that they didn't need to spend so much money on full internal QA. The general public would actually -- willingly -- put their own machines at risk, install unfinished software, and even send in bug reports, all in order to be the coolest kids on the block. Part of the "bleeding edge".

My father was one of those people. Truth be told, so was I. The difference is that I had a dozen boxes, three of which were reserved for testing. It didn't matter that build 451 of Windows 98 beta might let explorer.exe run away with the processor or maybe build 827 might accidentally wipe a directory; it was running on a testbed. Not so for my father. He learned about back-ups the hard way.

The consumer magazines didn't help matters. Ziff-Davis and all their competitors couldn't publish a single issue of any of their ad-laden rags without at least one report on the latest beta no matter how meaningless and pointless the actual application, fanning the flames of users' desires to get hold of such software so they could also be "in". So great was the demand that Microsoft managed to charge users $30 for Windows 98 beta!

The beta juggernaut continued. Companies -- especially those whose software would ultimately turn out to be vapourware -- started releasing alpha into the wild, calling it "beta". Quite a bit of it cough*Longhorn*cough never made it past cough*Duke Nukem Forever*cough that stage.

It's 2006. To the general public "beta" no longer means DANGER WILL ROBINSON!, only Oooh! Shiny! Beta is seen as nothing more than the latest version one can get for free or a reduced price.

The word "beta" should start the klaxons ringing. Instead it's an invitation -- a Siren, or more appropriately, a Succubus. Nobody's scared of beta anymore. To the general public and even technically-oriented friends of mine, "beta" means "working", "stable" and even "safe".

Google's GMail has now been "beta" for more than two and a half years. On their front page Microsoft is pushing beta software. The majority of the page is covered in a splash screen encouraging visitors to download "Office beta 2". In the second week of September, 2006 the focus was on inviting users to download "Windows Defender Beta 2". Two weeks later it was for "Expression Web Beta 1". Two weeks ago they were pushing Office 2007 beta update. All of these are still available and recommended on Microsoft's home page. The download pages for IE7, Office 2007 and all other Microsoft beta software contain much hype and no warnings whatsoever. Not a one.

There's no warning to users that their entire systems could be corrupted and made unusable. Google doesn't mention that the entire interface could change and that all mail could be lost. Microsoft doesn't mention that even sites which were designed for IE6 using Microsoft's recommended methods may not work in IE7, let alone Web-based applications. $OurBigApp sure as hell doesn't work in it.

The tech community needs to take the word back from the marketers. Yes, it's great to get others to do your testing for you but they need to know the risks. Instead, users and administrators alike are downloading the latest beta versions and installing them on production systems, then screaming at other vendors that everything's b0rked.

Over the course of two months, seven companies with over 20,000 seats total were down thanks to users and admins installing IE7 beta 2, beta 3, RC2 and RC3.


x-posted from HuSi where there's a poll


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