Digital Disruptor

What if car makers released ‘beta’ versions?

Matt Berger Dec 5, 2011

It’s been nearly a month since the launch of the new website, and four times that long since we released our first-ever iPhone App, so when I read this article today on Gizmodo taking Apple to task over its liberal use of the term “beta” for the release of its Siri voice recognition software, I got to thinking about the impact that word has had on users and makers of technology.

I’ll begin with a question that has dogged me as long as I’ve been involved in making software and web-based products: What if car makers released “beta versions” of their products?

I think we all know the answer. At least one person would die!

Beta as crutch
It’s unacceptable in the auto industry to release a car when the brakes don’t work or the ignition is faulty. Yet in the software and technology business, buggy product releases are common and even accepted practice. It seems the bar for product releases has fallen so low that as long as death isn’t a side effect, it’s okay to send a buggy product to market.

Full disclosure, you might say I’m the pot calling the kettle black. When my team released the Marketplace Radio iPhone App this summer, we had no idea that certain bugs hidden in the app would lead to a series of reproducable crashes for nearly every users that downloaded it. If we did, we most certainly wouldn’t have released it.

You might say we fell victim to the Beta mentality. Just get it out there, see what users say, then release an update.

But the end result is much more sinister (and this is where I begin making my point). It is our most loyal customers – the early adoptors – who end up having the worst experience with our products. Those users should be our best customers and our biggest cheerleaders. Instead, they end up contributing to the 85 negative reviews in the App store.

Beta’s rise to normalcy
As far as I know, it’s the software industry to blame for this. They are the ones who turned this normal step in the life-cycle of a software product, into a public-facing one. Like many things the tech industry, we might blame Microsoft, who released a new version of its Windows operating system so often, almost surely as a way to fix those bugs reported in the previous version. Those of us who remember the blue screen of death might agree.

And if Microsoft started it, Google made it popular. So many of its products have the (BETA) lable stuck onto it, almost as if to say: “what do you expect, it’s free, of course it’s going to be buggy.”

I’m just not sure how much longer end users will stand for it.

On that note, time to get back to bug testing our next website release.

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