As many of you may have noticed, Google Mail (aka
“GMail”) is still labeled/branded as being “in beta”.
This is an interesting thing because I originally got my
beta account setup on GMail sometime in the summer of 2004. This means
we’re closing in on two years of the “beta period”. So,
we can ask ourselves why Google insists on leaving the product in beta –
and if there are good reasons for this, whether other web software companies
should do the same.
At some level, I think Google has distorted the meaning of
the word “beta”. Generally a beta period is intended to have
a limited set of early users test the product and provide feedback. The
developer then uses this feedback to refine the product prior to public release
(or general “launch”). The intent is to get many of the
issues resolved before the software is unleashed on the masses thereby
hopefully reducing the volume of “post production” bugs that are
reported. This makes sense for just about everyone involved (especially
the software developer).
Implicit in most beta programs is the following:
- Beta users should expect to find some issues and report
them (i.e. the product is likely not quite ready for “prime
- There should be a reporting
mechanism so that these users can report the issues.
- Some portion of the reported
issues will be resolved by the software developer (usually, what is
important enough to fix is up to the developer)
- Eventually a “public
release” is made once the software is deemed “good
enough” by the developer.
In Google’s case, it seems obvious that they are not
really managing a beta program in the traditional sense.
My suspicion is that Google is keeping this (and other
products) in beta for one very simple reason: because they can.
Though the term beta likely has no real legal implications (other than
what is defined in the terms of service), there is a perception about beta
products that allows for a minimalist set of terms to be offered. For
example, if Google had a “production” (non-beta) web service
available, it would be unreasonable of them to state their terms of service to
be something like: “use at your own risk, we reserve the right to
turn this off, change our mind, kill the project or whatever for any reason
whatsoever which we may or may not decide to ever communicate to
you…” However, for a beta product, just about anything goes.
So, the question is, what possible incentive does Google have to ever
take GMail out of beta. If
users have come to accept the beta label (and will gladly use the product
anyways), it seems there’s very little incentive. Given that GMail
is free (though I prefer the term “subsidized”), they really
don’t have any obligation to ever come out of beta.
So, having said that, if you are offering software as a web
service and not charging direct fees (like a subscription), could you get away
with the same thing? Should you even try? The answer is:
maybe. Most users these days expect developers to have a beta period for
their software. Nothing surprising here. The only risk is that some
percentage of customers will likely wait before a product is
“launched” as they don’t want to be “beta
testers”. If this set of users is very small (or small enough),
there’s no reason not to put a beta product out there – and leave
it there, for the same reasons Google seems to be doing it. Though one
could argue that not every software company can get away with what Google does,
one can make the counter-argument that Google has “conditioned” the
market that using beta software is “ok”.
My general advice would then be: If putting a beta
label on your software makes it easier for you to get out to market (and start
getting some feedback from real customers), then by all means do it. Too
many companies hold on to their software too long in the hopes of making it
“perfect”. Once you’re out there in beta, you can ask
yourself when (and if) you ever actually come out of beta. If your
customers (and I use the term loosely) don’t’ have an issue with
you being in beta, then there seems to be little incentive to actually
“launch” (and likely lots of good reasons why you shouldn’t).
If it’s a good strategy for Google, it might just be a good
strategy for you.