Our collective patience runs thin on the Web

by Jason SalasMonday, September 3, 2001

Beta releases have completely changed the way companies design, launch, and market their products

One thing that never ceases to amaze me about the Web is the maturation of the beta-testing process. It is the Web generation’s embodiment of the modern-day focus group. In only a few short years, major companies have modified their testing strategies from costly, lengthy testing sessions, limited in scope and reach, to releases of pre-versions of their products over the Web to a global audience. Heck, I remember when Netscape released its next-generation browser, Communicator 4, in the spring of 1997. There was a lot of the normative hype and marketing fluff touting the browser before it was formally released, but the eventual program became largely publicly available on the product launch date.

And then Microsoft released Internet Explorer 4, the event that would start the end of the Web browser wars (and subsequently, start what would eventually become the Department of Justice’s investigation into the Redmond software giant). When it was announced that MS would allow people to download a preview version of IE5 in 1999, hundreds of thousands of people had the beta installed and running, even before the final release came out. And when the final version was put up for public download, more than 2 million people accessed it in the first 24 hours.  I also did a “preview-review” of the public beta release of IE6 on TV for “Tech Talk” back in March, and at that time the program had already been available for several weeks, and a number of people exponentially larger than the previous count running the beta of IE5 had IE6 running on their machines. I should know – what prompted me to download the beta of Internet Explorer 6 was seeing how many people accessed KUAM.COM using the new browser, and how quickly this number increased in just the span of a few short weeks.

It’s common practice and a de facto principle of the e-conomy that the Web has shaped to provide stuff for free, and fast. When you think about it, it’s logical to act the way we do. Those in the Web-savvy community don’t pay for music anymore because we can easily download MP3 files from a number of P2P applications, such as Gnutella, LimeWire, and Audio Galaxy (all of which came to power at the demise of Napster). We can get literally hundreds of free e-mail accounts (a la Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, PinoyMail.com) to use as our main methods of contact. And software piracy - especially on Guam - is an unspoken but very serious concern.

What brought this revelation to my mind as I was lying in bed was specifically Microsoft’s release of its .NET Framework SDK Beta (as of the time of this writing in Beta 2).  The . NET Framework, which is the company’s landmark next-gen enterprise strategy (the first being Bill Gates’ theory of having “a computer in every home, all running Microsoft software”, and the second being Microsoft’s reinvention of itself in integrating the Internet into its products, circa 1995) has been successful in getting more than 1,000,000 developers worldwide (including yours truly) to build dynamic, intelligent Web applications. There is a literal cash cow in the market for books, CD-ROMs and other methods of publication for resources and training on .NET applications development, the profits generated from which rival the economies of many small countries.

All this while the product isn’t even finished.

Can you imagine the dollars spent on such documentation once the program is formally launched? KA-CHING! I own several books myself on ASP.NET, and the phrase “…although the exact implementation may be different when the final release becomes available…” is a recurring thorn in my side. Many a developer I’ve worked with already cringes in recalling differences between Beta 1 and Beta 2. Yet, the nature of the beast is that with new product iteration, the final isn’t that much different, and many people believe Beta 2 is just about there.  And it's our responsibility as developers to learn to roll with the changes.

Step back and think about this rationally for a second. You’re staking your entire credibility and perhaps the longevity of your career on the precept of a product that isn’t even finished yet. You lay claim about your ability to develop large-scale, robust, dynamic Web applications with software that the vendor admits is buggy and incomplete, and in some remote circumstances may cause catastrophic errors in a PC, forcing it to have to be reformatted. 

Nevertheless, any software vendor will readily tell you that the public beta process is an integral and cost-effective means of turning out the best program possible for the users who will ultimately consume it.

And as long as we can get stuff for free – time’s no barrier. As an epilogue to my random thought pattern, the final IE6 release, which I downloaded last week to replace the beta version, is an improvement, although slightly aesthetically different from the beta, notably in its functions that take on the feel and UI of the soon-to-be-released WindowsXP.

The preview version of which, by the way, is also available for download. :)

It’s common practice and a de facto principle of the e-conomy that the Web has shaped to provide stuff for free, and fast. When you think about it, it’s logical to act the way we do.
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