What does “beta” mean today? Two interesting thoughts on that out on the Interweb today. First is Jeneane Sessum’s post on The Business of “Betatizing” The Web
The role of the beta release today is to invite customers inside the organization — not just to find bugs and get that nebulous “buy-in,” but also to feed their interest and nurture their passions, because a beta user today won’t spend time on an application unless it’s something that moves them.
The unspoken intent of software/service providers in releasing beta products today is to actually listen to and incorporate the best of the feedback from people who pre-love the product, to develop a lexicon with a user base that will power conversation throughout the evolution of the product.
In addition, because beta users are connected to — and talking to — one another via the net, their shared passion and resulting buzz have the potential to transform xyz beta into the next big brand.
Well, they do say ship early and ship often, but it’s important to remember why they say that. It’s not for the sake of it. It’s not to garner publicity (premature publicity being what Joel calls the Marimba phenomenon). It’s to get some real people using it early so you can shake out the wrinkles. And when you’ve shaken out the wrinkles you expand your user group and find more wrinkles and shake them out. And so on. And before you know it you’ve got a world-beating product which everyone loves.
This is one of the themes developed by Geoffrey Moore in Crossing the Chasm and Inside the Tornado.
So it’s crucial to get that initial user group right, and it’s crucial to listen to them and act on what they demand. If in your user group you include people (like Joel and Lloyd) who don’t think you’re going to listen to them then you’ve lost those customers perhaps for ever.
Who’s right? Controlled user group, or open beta? Well, both. The thing that worries me, though, is that these days people are very, very quick to draw conclusions on something online. I’ve done it myself – 30 Boxes doesn’t work for me because of two pieces of functionality, but overall it seems like a nice product. So how does 30 Boxes get me back once I’ve made that snap judgement? Might it have been better to have a controlled, genuinely two-way dialogue with a smaller user group before opening it up to a time-poor, quick-to-judge world? Hmm.