Issue 204, February 29, 2000  

The World Still Isn't Your Beta Site

By Stephen Lawton

 Three years ago, I wrote an editorial in another magazine entitled "Notice To Software Developers: The World Is Not Your Beta." Not only has this warning not been heeded, things seem to be getting worse. In that rant, I took companies to task for releasing software that simply wasn't ready for prime time. Today, we not only have some vendors distributing questionable - if not useless - software, we also are forced to provide extensive demographics to use it.
      There is a danger here. We do not live in those same benevolent days when users could trust that the software distributed on the Net was free from malicious viruses or, even worse, intrusive code that revealed personal information. Not only am I concerned with poorly written and infected code, I'm concerned about privacy.
      Beta, by definition, means it is buggy; it's not a finished product. My concern is that beta software is getting out of hand. While it might be heresy to say this, I think vendors should take 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 betas. They call it final and then start with a new set of betas. This has improved a little in the browser arena, but there's a lot of other beta and alpha software ready for consumption.
      Some information systems managers hold back from using beta packages, opting instead for released products. They do this for two reasons: Final software generally is more reliable and of higher quality, and the IS manager will have more control over versions and licenses. However, with so many users downloading their own versions of beta software, the potential for problems still exists.
      When I 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. 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.
      But there are other, more insidious reasons for distributing software - or any product - free on the Net. It affords an opportunity to gather significant amounts of personal data about the person downloading the software. Once the vendor obtains this data, it very likely will end up in the hands of marketers who will be very happy to share it with marketing firms willing to pay big bucks for user-supplied demographics.
      Marketers know far too much about me already - I don't want to help them any more than I must. Privacy is more than just elusive. Once it's lost, it's gone! Forever! Unless you change your identity, your demographics will become part of the national experience. Maybe I'm overstating this a little, but I value my privacy, and I'll not let software companies grab my demographics just for the right of being their guinea pig.


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