Progressive networks launched RealPlayer last month amid much hoopla. With a huge New York press conference and strategically planned media interviews, the company unveiled a new component that could become the standard for Web video.
Except Progressive didn’t actually release a new product. Instead, it officially launched the beta version of RealVideo.
Until a year or two ago, beta testing was a relatively sacrosanct area that marketers did not discuss. Software beta testers were a cherry-picked elite group who signed nondisclosure agreements in exchange for testing products.
Web sites open up betas
Now, companies such as Microsoft Corp., Netscape Communications Corp. and Progressive are putting up beta versions of products on their Web sites for everyone to try out, almost reducing betas to just another sales tool.
The question is, if a product is being widely released in beta, is it still technically a beta? If not, say technology trend watchers, blame it on a shifting marketing paradigm brought on by the speed of technological change.
Says David Callahan, editor of Crossgrid.org, an online newsletter covering technology marketing: “At one time, beta test programs were secret. Now executives of software companies are buying $100,000 in magazine ads to talk about the cool applications they are giving away.”
“They really aren’t betas anymore, so you have to wonder how is the software getting tested,” he adds. “But with the Internet, you need to get your product in front of millions of people, so you’re churning product release cycles out so much faster than the long beta cycles of a few years ago.”
As a result, Mr. Coursey says there are two kinds of betas: Marketing betas, which address user interface issues and allow time for last-minute fixes, and technical betas, controlled tests with selected groups of people who often must sign non-disclosure agreements.
An increasing trend
Public marketing betas are an increasingly prevalent trend in the industry. “In terms of features, we still try to keep betas as betas. Not all the features will be complete,” says Julie Herendeen, group product manager in the client division of Netscape, Mountain View, Calif.
“We like to get the features [of our products] out to the public as soon as possible. From that standpoint, betas serve two functions – testing the software and getting heightened awareness through the building of a broad audience,” she says.
From a price and technical standpoint, Netscape and other companies hedge their betas by excluding features and support normally built into full-release editions.
Most so-called public betas are built with “time bombs” – bits of code that render the test software inoperative after a period of use.
Also, Netscape gives very little customer phone support for betas, steering inquisitive callers to the help areas on the Web site. The life of Netscape’s betas generally is 90 to 180 days. Presumably, after the beta expires, users will be so enamored of the particular software they will purchase the complete version.
The beta version of Netscape Navigator 3.0 Standard browser software was rolled out on the site last spring, and remained in beta for approximately five months. During this period, Ms. Herendeen says, Netscape staffers regularly checked e-mail and postings to external, Netscape-oriented Usenet Newsgroups in search of user complaints about bugs or other product features that need enhancement.
Betas far closer to being finished
“When you release a beta these days, you are going to have 90% of your product built. In terms of fixing bugs, the last 10% is the hardest, but you can always fall back on ‘this is just a beta’ excuse,” says Tim Bajarin, president, Creative Strategies Research International, a San Jose high-tech marketing consultancy.
Alpha tests, once just for silicon lab rats, now are being conducted further in a product development cycle, with some moving into the realm traditionally occupied by beta. Alpha tests can range from the raw code state of product development to as high as a 75% completion threshold, Mr. Coursey says.
Although a few Web sites put up alpha tester solicitations, most of these people are still prequalified – at least for now. Generally, alpha tests remain small and closed.
Beta, on the other hand, almost defies closed testing, given the sheer number of beta testers now available through the Internet. Still, closed tests have their pluses.
“The advantage of a closed beta is the qualified feedback, but the disadvantage is all the record-keeping and filing of non-disclosure agreements,” says Phil Barrett, VP-software products for Progressive.
While at Microsoft in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mr. Barrett was development manager for several betas, including a 7,000-tester closed beta of Windows 3.1.
The Seattle-based Progressive, known for its RealAudio Player, has had more than 1.5 million downloads of its audio- and video-enabled RealPlayer since it posted the program on its Web site Feb. 10.
Internet distribution gutsy
“We’ve recognized that utilizing the Internet as a way to distribute a beta test version is gutsy, but a beta test implies a level of stability for people interested in using a product,” says Mr. Barrett.
Microsoft also plays the beta game. Seven betas are on its Free Downloads page soft.com/msdownload/default.asp). Betas include Comic Chat 2.0 Beta 1 and NetMeeting 2.0 Beta 2, an Internet phone product.
Often, companies will release a succession of betas until a product is deemed ready for full release.
It may be a cat-and-mouse game, but Netscape’s Ms. Herendeen says this exposure more than offsets possible vulnerability to competitors.
“It’s important to get your product out in the field,” Mr. Barrett added.