Notice to software developers:
the world is not your beta

By Stephen Lawton, Editor-in-Chief

October 1996

Much has been written about the virtues of the Web - its flexibility, the ability to do collaborative computing and its historic significance as a conduit for software developers to distribute software to their colleagues. Certainly, it's our life's blood here; there would be no NetscapeWorld without it. But all is not as it should be -- there are those who are determined to use the Internet for their own personal and professional advancement at the expense of others, and I'm not only talking about hackers.

There is a danger afoot here and it grows from the very founding principles of the Internet itself. Unfortunately, we do not live in those same, benevolent days of just a few years ago where, generally speaking, you could trust the other netters. No, the world has changed, and the Internet along with it.

What is this former blessing that's now a curse? Why, it's beta software, of course. When the 'net was in its formative stages, academics and software developers were happy to share their newly developed wonders with other like minds. Then, back in the ancient days of the 'net - was it only the 1980s -- no one would even think of sending dangerous software to others. OK, that might be overstating it a bit, but you get my point. It was only a few years ago that the philosophy of the Internet was more like the proverbial Musketeers' credo: "One for all and all for one."

Today, software vendors are using the Internet -- and more specifically, the Web -- as their outlet for half-baked software that is commonly called: beta. When I first started writing about technology in 1978, beta software was something that you gave to special users -- those savvy enough to be able to test the code and report back on bugs. A company never would think of passing off raw code as a finished product, tempting users to download it and use it without the vendor taking any responsibility for quality. Today, there is a plethora of software available for download that, simply put, is just, plain junk. Quality meant something then, but I'm not sure it has the same meaning today.

You can image my dismay when I heard of "pre-alpha" Software available for download on the Web. I assume that pre-alpha means that you test it and if it doesn't blow up your machine, it's ready to go into alpha. If I'm not mistaken, I recall alpha code being something akin to basic software that is starting to work -- now if we can only get the features in, we might have a product.

The danger, of course, is that with all this not-ready-for-prime-time software floating about, problems will occur. Here at NetscapeWorld, two of our editors can no longer share certain files because some beta software corrupted the b-tree hierarchy on their Macintoshes. The manufacturer knew of the problem and even put a reference to it in at the end of the README file that was distributed with the beta software. Nonetheless, this is a significant enough problem that it never should have gone out with this problem intact.

Personally, I'm amazed at the number of beta packages I have on my system today. Even some of the latest Navigator plug-ins are still in beta form, although you'd hardly know it by the way the vendors talk about the products.

Of course, beta software also is a wonderful way to distribute viruses and other irritating code. It might not be intentional, but it has happened. At one university, the anti-virus software the school provided to its students -- beta software, of course -- had a virus on the distribution disk. The vendor never meant for it to be widely distributed, but the school thought it was doing its students a favor. Some favor.

While it might be heresy to say this, I think vendors should take a little more responsibility with the beta software they distribute. In some cases, it's starting to appear that companies are calling software a final release version because they are bored with putting out beta releases. Call it final and start with a new set of betas.

Instead of making the world the beta site for half-cooked software and a new channel for product marketing, I'm in favor of approaches such as that taken by companies like McAfee, which makes commercial versions of its software available for evaluation. This is the same software you can buy, but it's offered for short-term evaluation.

Interestingly, the issue of beta software arose at the Zona Research's Intranet & Internet Industry Conference. An attendee posed the question of the virtues of all this beta software on the 'net to Stephen Auditore, president of Zona, who responded that the 'net is in a state of "perpetual beta software" where "companies are tossing things out to get mindshare."

Information systems manager tend to hold back from using beta packages, opting instead for released products. However, with so many users downloading their own versions of beta software, the potential for problems, even in a carefully controlled enterprise, still exists. Zona's Clay Ryder, a senior analyst, agrees that beta software today is roughly the technological equivalent of alpha software from a few years ago. However, Ryder maintains that software vendors who employ the approach of distributing beta software get a larger number of users to work out the bugs, thus producing a better end product.

A number of very reputable companies make beta software available on the 'net, but users need to be wary of companies you don't know. The axiom caveat emptor must be acknowledged: Let the buyer (or in this case, the beta tester) beware. What you don't know about a product can hurt you. I'm not saying that all beta software is bad, but before you fill your disk with it, ask yourself: If this software was bug free, would it be called "beta?"


Copyright 2001 Stephen M. Lawton All trademarks are the property of their respective companies