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The beta culture

January 11, 2006

The Register, displaying its usual British reserve, calls Google's new video store "a really crap web site," featuring "a dismal interface wrapped in a shambles of a delivery mechanism." Google's other new innovation, the Google Pack, is also suffering some rough reviews. Paul Thurrott, writing on the Windows SuperSite, details his unpleasant experience installing the pack: "I consider myself to be reasonably competent with a PC, and I was already familiar with most of the applications found in Google Pack. But it still took me about 90 minutes from start to finish, along with several system reboots, to get this suite of applications up and running on my test PC. There's just no real integration here, and the fact that many of these applications require so much updating speaks poorly of this effort."

Google Pack and Google Video are both, according to Google, in "beta." So are a lot of other publicly available Google products, like Google Groups, Google Blog Search, Google Book Search, Google Reader, Google Web Accelerator, Google Scholar, and even the venerable trio Gmail, Froogle and Google News. This approach of constantly launching new products as betas has earned Google considerable praise. It's been held up, for instance, as a new model for how software companies can get new products or features out into the marketplace quickly, then improve them as they're used. It's also been noted that calling new products "betas" may insulate Google from lawsuits.

But while I used to think the beta approach was a pretty nifty idea, now I'm having my doubts. While Google has certainly proved that it can produce wonderful products, like its bread-and-butter search engine and its addictive Google Earth, a lot of those beta products - and not just the new ones - are pretty lackluster. Froogle, for example, is unpleasant to use, and Blog Search is just plain dreary. The tossing of half-baked products onto the web is starting to look less like a brilliant idea than a sign of hubris. You get the sense that the great minds at Google believe that we lowly users should be grateful for any scrap they throw out to us. Google may be in the process of creating a dysfunctional "beta culture" that puts the interests of its engineers ahead of the interests of its customers. Eventually, if it keeps pumping out mediocre beta products and letting them lie around more or less indefinitely, it will start to tarnish its brand, if not wear out its welcome. We all know success breeds hubris, and we know what hubris breeds, too.

Yes, there's a certain thrill to feeling like you're a beta tester for the world's coolest company. But once the thrill wears off, you're just annoyed. You start to remember why they call them betas.


"Google may be in the process of creating a dysfunctional "beta culture" ..."

Let's not give Google too much credit here. "Beta culture" wasn't even Microsoft's innovation :-). It has a long and hallowed tradition in software development.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at January 11, 2006 05:40 PM

"Open betas don't work" -- Joel Spolsky

Posted by: Don Marti at January 11, 2006 08:56 PM

In November I had made a Blog posting about how we are hyping up Google beyond merit in response to one of yours praising it. It seems the wheel has come full circle.

Posted by: Nitin at January 11, 2006 09:34 PM

Bang on the point
Like many, I have been a long time Google lover and believe that things like Gmail are truly a big step forward (as compared to a regular webmail experience)

But of late, Google has just been throwing too many half-baked products at us and believes that the masses would just lop it on

Bad news Google ... your time has come. People arent going to keep going gaga over your products

Incidentally, can someone tell me any great google success story after Search, Search advertising and Google Maps/Earth ???

I am still looking for one

Short message to Google - Please understand that at some point in time the charm is going to wear off (perhaps it is happening even as I write this comment)

Posted by: Murali at January 11, 2006 11:21 PM

I read one comment (can't remember where) about how google looks to be trying to be the microsoft of the internet. And I truely believe that.

One slight problem

Microsoft bring out a crap OS, we have to like it or lump it. Google bring out something rubbish, and we can go looking for it elsewhere and get it.

Google seem to be leaning on their brand name too much now, and at some point people will stop loving google for its name and start hating it for its half finished crap products.

Posted by: DonkeyBeast at January 13, 2006 08:22 PM

This reminds me of "Counter-Strike". For reasons known only to the developer, the various versions of the game were called "betas" (this is back when it was a modification pack for Half-Life, rather than its own entity.) Ultimately there would be a series of nine releases, all called "beta". Then a distribution deal was signed, the most-recent revision was re-titled "version 1.0", and the game was sold (and promptly patched to version 1.1, then 1.2, then 1.3...)

I could never figure out quite what they meant by "beta", seeing as how they were releasing their product to the public and expecting them to use it, but I just went with it. (After all, this is a group who had a "diffusion" game mode, where you had to "diffuse" a bomb...)

Posted by: DensityDuck at January 14, 2006 12:27 AM

I seriously believe the Internet is a liability for software quality. Back in the day when most devices had to have the software in ROM, quality assurance was very important - if there was a bug, you had to spend thousands (if not millions) on a product recall. Now, with patches being just a download away, companies can effectively offload beta testing onto their users to save costs (Microsoft has done this for years, but Google is actually recognising the fact). This would stop if users were given the power to sue in a class action suit, about any bugs (no matter the severity) in a software product. Vendors would be forced to make sure their software came up to snuff before it was released on an unsuspecting public.

Posted by: Oliver at January 15, 2006 10:01 AM

I think that for founder-managed startup companies, the following scenario is pretty typical: the company does very well as long as it can grow based on the original product concept and direct evolutions off of that concept. Once growth requires products in very different areas (or major changes in sales channel strategy) things tend to fall apart.

Posted by: David Foster at January 15, 2006 12:19 PM

I think it's OK to release products in beta. Why not use the power of the internet to test and improve your product?

What's not OK is to *leave* them that way. Google Groups, for example, has been "in beta" since the last century. That's just meaningless - in any real sense Groups is a stable, released product.

I'd like to see Google make new products available on a proper beta basis - with well defined mechanisms for getting in touch and reporting bugs or suggesting improvements. Then, after 6 months or so, drawing a line and saying "this is version 1.0" (and maybe working towards the beta of version 2... ).

Posted by: Chris Hunt at January 24, 2006 08:41 AM

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