Technology has entered a phase where pretty much everything is a beta.
Take GMail. The first beta appeared in 2004. It remained in beta status until 2009. In fact, people so missed the “BETA” label on the GMail logo that there’s an official Google extension that allows you to add it back in!
Virtually all open source software projects start out in beta. Like GMail, most stay in varying stages of beta for years, if they ever make it to a stable release.
Even for commercial software, it used to be that beta testing programs were tough to get into. They were the domain of the tech elite. Serious bragging rights, although often the first rule of being accepted into a beta was that you don’t talk about the beta. Eventually, alpha became the new beta. “Oh, you got on the beta? Yeah, I’ve been on the alpha for months.” Now, “pre-alpha engineering drops” are the new bleeding edge. And many commercial software vendors have public beta programs for many of their products. And even public alphas.
But more and more, a released software product is no longer in the kind of shape that one used to call release-worthy. So many final releases seem more like advanced betas these days. This blog having a strong Flash background, I’m sure you can name one or two notorious releases of the Flash authoring tool that were nowhere near ready for prime time when they went on sale. Even operating systems are not very trustworthy in their first releases.
A lot of this has to do with the ease of updating software these days. Even if you actually buy a shrink-wrapped box, the first thing that happens when you install something is that it checks for updates, patches, service packs, hotfixes. Whatever you want to call them, the first few of them often are required just to bring the product up to basic usability.
This is not just limited to software either. Most hardware these days is powered by some sort of software or firmware. All too often, the first release of hardware has some nasty issues. And nobody is exempt from this. Even the midas-touch everything-is-magical Apple had their antenna-gate moment. Often, the bugs in a hardware device are caused by the firmware, or can at least be handled or mitigated by updates in firmware. But not always.
How a company publically handles such issues says a lot about the company, I think. I’ve seen a few different tactics: acknowledgement, denial and silence.
When Amazon announced the latest generation Kindle, I pre-ordered immediately. When I got it, I noticed that it would occasionally crash or reboot. Maybe once or twice a day. This was surprising, as my first Kindle was almost mystically 100% perfect. Never saw it do anything that could remotely be called a bug. It turned out that others were having the same problem as well with the latest Kindle. I called Amazon support, prepared to answer a raft of “have you tried turning it off and back on?” questions, maybe get sent a prerelease firmware update or be given some keyboard shortcut to put it into diagnostic mode or something. I started explaining the problem and the rep interrupted me and asked for my address. The next day, I had a brand new Kindle in my hands, with a postage paid envelope to ship back the faulty one. The new Kindle has been 100% flawless, by the way. If I didn’t love Amazon before that, I did then.
Then take Apple’s approach with the antenna problems. First, “you’re holding it wrong”. Then a video tour of their antenna testing facility to prove that they couldn’t possibly have an antenna problem. Finally, a software update that didn’t address the problem, but updated the algorithm for showing the strength of the signal. And more videos showing how their competition has similar problems. I lost track after that, but I don’t think they ever admitted there was an issue. I’m not bashing Apple here. I’m just saying that particular issue was handled really poorly, IMHO.
One more example. Many of you know I’m a runner. For runners, Garmin GPS watches are the ultimate gadget, showing your time, distance, pace, route, elevation, heart rate, calories, etc. while you’re out for a workout. I had a Garmin 305 for a year and a half, which is this large, boxy, device that straps to your wrist and does all of the above. It’s big and ugly but it is the classic workhorse of Garmin’s line. It’s an older model so you can get it cheap and it has been the mainstay of many runners for years. Other than its looks, I can only say positive things about it. However, this spring, Garmin came out with the 610, an amazing sleek touchscreen device that does everything the 305 does and more. And it has the slimness and style of a watch you could wear every day. And did I mention, it’s a touch screen?
Again, I pre-ordered this baby. It’s an awesome device. I love it to death. But there was one problem. An important aspect of a GPS watch is accurate GPS. Without that, you’ve just got a very expensive stopwatch. The 610′s GPS is, in itself, probably the most accurate of all similar watches. But there was a bug where certain functions of the watch would somehow disrupt the GPS reception and cause the accuracy to go off for up to several seconds at the start of a run and at each lap. So while it was extremely accurate most of the time, it could be extremely innacurate for those few seconds, which could throw your whole run off. In my case, although I saw the issue, it didn’t affect the overall accuracy that horribly. Others, though, seemed to be hit harder by it.
Garmin’s response: nothing. There’s an official Garmin forum where this was all being ranted and raved about. Garmin reps are active on the forum but none would say a word about the issue. No acknowledgement, no denial, just deaf to it. After several weeks, a Garmin rep came on the forum and suggested a workaround which would somewhat mitigate the problem. Basically, “tap the screen after you start your workout and at each lap.” This was not quite a “you’re holding it wrong” but kind of a “it’s not quite as bad if you hold it this way.” Then silence again. And a few weeks later, a new firmware arrived, which totally fixed the issue. I’m not sure why they couldn’t just say, “thanks, we’re aware of the issue and acknowledge it and we have a fix for it that will be out soon.” A simple statement like that would have gone a long, long way in their favor.
So back to beta culture.
I found it interesting, that in the Garmin forums, several people said things like, “Didn’t they test this thing before they shipped it? We just paid hundreds of dollars to be beta testers!”
While that statement was slung out in anger, it’s actually pretty spot on. And not just targeting Garmin. The fact is, that in this day and age, if you are an early adopter, you are essentially a beta tester. Software and even hardware is not going to be perfect on first release. And the situation is probably going to get worse over time: open source bleeding edge alternatives, competitions’ open betas, fiscal deadlines, accelerated technology ramp up are all pushing companies to release faster, earlier, more often. It’s got bugs? We’ll fix them in an update. Just get it out the door!
This has led many to say things like, “never buy a v1 product.” Well, sure, if perfection and stability is key, and you can afford to wait, let the early adopters band their heads on it for a few months and get v1.1, which will likely have a few less rough edges. But if you can deal with the speed bumps, being an early adopter means you can be the first one at the party with the new iDroid ZX G7 MegaAwesome. Chicks will dig you. Really. Maybe. Not.
But don’t pre-order some ultra-bleeding edge new product and be all self-righteously indignant because it has bugs.
I’m not saying that it SHOULD be that way, or that we shouldn’t demand higher standards, but it’s a fact of life. Be the girl with the shiny new, potentially imperfect gear, or the guy with last season’s model that works. Choose your poison.