Beta – What’s in a Name?

The release of the Safari 3 beta triggered another one of my pet peeves. Beta software – or software labeled as beta – being treated as production software. This pet peeve is typically triggered by public betas but “invitation” betas can trigger it too.

Wikipedia defines a beta software release as:

A beta version is the first version released outside the organization or community that develops the software, for the purpose of evaluation or real-world black/grey-box testing.

To me this means I should expect problems and I shouldn’t use the software for any important work or rely on the software while it’s still in beta. In the days when almost all betas were closed or private this was fairly obvious. You had to apply to the beta program and when you got the software it was usually made obvious you should expect bugs.

Things began to change a couple of years ago and betas morphed into a marketing tool and a way to avoid having to provide tech support. Google released Mail and Reader (and almost everything else) in extended (seemingly never-ending) betas which saw not just bug fixes but new features being added. While the associated web pages were labeled “beta” the software was promoted in the same way any production software would be. It may have been labeled beta, but it was used as production.

When Microsoft released their anti-spyware utility (now called Defender) they released it as a beta and it remained in beta for awhile. Again, it was promoted as a security utility everyone should have and was frequently recommended by Microsoft. It was beta software promoted as something everyone should use to secure their PC.

Now Apple has released Safari 3 as beta. There’s been a lot of noise about bugs and security holes in Safari 3 on Windows. There are others that say this is to be expected in beta software.

It’s true, problems are to be expected with beta software. I installed Safari 3 under Windows where Firefox is my primary browser. I use the Safari beta on sites I already trust and it’s not my default. I’ve found Safari to be stable on Windows (others have had problems) but I haven’t installed Safari 3 on my Mac and won’t install it while it’s in beta. Firefox is my primary browser on my Mac to0. I do use Safari at times and I don’t want to be forced to use a beta (it would replace the current Safari if I installed it).

The flip side of that is that Apple is marketing Safari 3 as a ready to go browser. The Safari 3 page only mentions the word “beta” once even though it is in the page title. The vast majority of the page is dedicated to enticing you to download and use Safari. No warnings. It doesn’t mention anywhere that it’s “pre-release” or that you should expect bugs. There isn’t a link to a known issues page or even a support forum. Safari 3 just includes a unlabeled button that can be used to report bugs. There’s no actual mention of it’s intended use.

Mozy also has a public beta going for their MacMozy client. As far as public betas go they are doing a better job of communicating what a beta is. Their download page mentions there might be bugs and provides a way to report them and their FAQ lists known issues. The installer also mentions that it’s beta software and provides a warning. Granted, people can and do ignore this, but if a company is going to do a public beta there’s only so much they can do. Mozy has also released updates during the beta process and documented the included fixes.

So yes, problems should be expected with beta software. But Apple claim to that excuse is tenuous at best due to the way they’re promoting the software. It’s a disappointed and growing trend.