We’re all beta testers for new product releases

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This article appeared in the December, 2008 issue of CRN magazine.

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We’re all beta testers for new product releases
You’ve probably heard this yourself: some company releases a product, early adopters discover some limitations in it which the company promises to fix, and this prompts much waggery in blogs, opinion columns and casual conversation.

“[Insert name of product] wasn’t ready for market – [insert name of company] thinks its customers are just beta testers, except we pay for the privilege!”

Hilarity ensues.

It never gets any less funny, even when you’ve heard it a thousand times.

Like I have. And, as I mentioned, probably you.

It isn’t true, of course (except in the case of Google, whose products never seem to get out of beta, but at least they’re free).

Companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Intel, NVidia and others – companies that actually develop new and interesting things – actually spend quite a bit of time and money in testing their products before releasing them to market.

The thing is, even when you’ve done pretty rigorous testing with different combinations of hardware, software and peripherals, there is simply no way to cover every permutation.

Once the product is out the door, chances are someone with a particular requirement that you didn’t foresee will buy it and experience the problem.

Then someone else will find it and, thanks to the miracle of the Internet, those two will find each other. And they’ll post about it on some Internet forum. And then a third person will experience the problem and, having found two mentions of it on a forum, will declare it to be a “known issue” which the company is trying to cover up.

The thing is, as any smart company will tell you, the products are never finished.

They reach a point where they’re good enough to go out the door, but even before they’re out, work has begun on the next version. And that version will take into account the comments from the Internet forum as well as a bunch of other stuff no-one noticed.

Then it will reach a point where it’s time to go out the door as well, and work begins on the next one.

This is why we have version numbers. It’s the reason, actually, that we have a technology industry.

If the perfect widget came out, complete and flawless, everyone would buy one. Just one.

And the company that built it would promptly go broke because of its inability to improve on its products and drum up repeat business.

I’m not saying companies deliberately hobble their products in hopes of selling replacements. I’m not saying they don’t either – none of my business really. I’m just acknowledging a reality: technology improves.

The thing you buy today is not as good as the thing you can buy next year. Not because you were an unwitting beta tester, but because the company needs to sell more than one of the thing.

2008 has been, I think, not the greatest year on record.

If your name was Barack Obama you had a pretty good one, and if your name was Jerry Yang you had a real stinkbomb. The rest of us lie somewhere in the middle.

Here’s hoping next year’s model is an improvement.

Matthew JC. Powell thinks he might have got a pre-alpha 2008.

Report bugs on mjcp@optusnet.com.au
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