Beta here, beta there, beta everywhere

As our generation starts to march further into the web 2.0 territory and the online world starts growing, everyone is now trying to deliver their new apps into the users' hands as fast as possible.  Many web 2.0 companies are now focus on getting their product out the door as quickly as they can wanting to find out if their ideas would turn into the next killer app.  As I look around each of the *cool* applications being featured nowadays, many of them are delivered under the "Beta" banner. 

Beta seems to be the new software release cycle, the real-time distribution of web application, and probably at the same time, the new way to experiment.  The mentality of software development has almost completely shifted from shrinkwrap to online services.  This "web" outlet allows us to "test" out a new feature as soon as it's development is complete and stable (hopefully, they are!) to see if the mass audience will accept or not. 

Let's take a quick look at the ratio of web application being offered by the big three which are released as Beta. 

Google Yahoo! Windows Live
58% 7% 50%

(I do apologize for the other equally tech savvy outfits with many great products but were left out of the list here. I just didn't have the time nor resource to dig through them all. Below is simply just a small representation of of the larger dataset just to make my point.   BTW, the full table is located here.)

Even metasearch companies like Dogpile and also do have at least one Beta service.  Even my dear A9, who lost Udi Manger and had discontinued most of its services, even has a new sponsored link program -- ClickRiver, which of course, is being launched as another Beta.

After compiling the list, a question came in my mind -- what's the criteria of releasing a product as a beta?  Wikipedia actually has a great definition on this term and is very useful in learning the origin of beta.  However, I think the definition really boils down into 2 parts. 

  1. Does beta release represents the first version release of the program with bugs out there yet to be found and unstable?  And beta-release will give the chance for more eyes to catch all those errors. 
  2. Or does it mean that the program itself has already gone through internal testing and is quite stable, but the team is not sure whether it'll be accepted by the public or not.  And as a result of this uncertainty, the product may still go through numerous changes until the final version is decided. 

Microsoft is very good at the former definition of beta.  Both Windows and Office products had gone through many cycles of beta program, which were very successful.  (Jonathan Goodyear wrote a wonderful article about the meaning of beta in this context).  Gmail may somewhat represent the second -- it has been in beta ever since its initial release, undergoing multiple changes, but at the same time very stable. 

As we progress further into the online services world, my guess would be we'll be seeing more of beta releases.  And I somewhat think that it's all for the greater benefits for the mass -- we get higher quality products, and at the same time, we also get the products that we actually want.