March 03, 2006 - by jason
A little over a year ago, I met with Dave Young to talk about joining him at Joyent. I was intrigued from the start, but he hooked me with a 15-minute diatribe against the inanity of seemingly never-ending “public betas” for web sites. It was a rant that could have come out of my own mouth. In short, we both agreed that permanent “betas” are bullshit – as are any public betas that last more than a few weeks.
You’re either ready to ship, or you’re not. Slapping a “beta” badge on your logo doesn’t cover for any actual flaws or shortcomings in your software. It’s this decade’s equivalent of the 90’s “under construction” GIF animation.
This week, we officially launched our hosted Joyent Connector service, and, as promised, we did it without ever slapping a “beta” label on it. It’s far from perfect and our to-do feature list is still quite long, but real software ships. If it’s good enough for your customers to use, you shouldn’t need a bogus “beta” label to excuse its deficiencies.
One way we avoided a public beta was by soft-launching. We started taking money and turning on real accounts early in February, a couple of weeks before making any official announcements. We spread the word quietly to friends and to our loyal customers at TextDrive (most companies would kill for a customer base like TextDrive’s), people who, we hoped, would be somewhat forgiving of any unforeseen hiccups as we scaled the service.
There’s nothing wrong with real betas – controlled, scheduled periods of testing for unproven software still in development. For some “social” web apps that are expected to scale to many thousands of users, it might even make good sense to ship as a public beta – for a short period of time. Exhibit A regarding how to do this right: Mike Davidson’s NewsVine, which also shipped for real this week, after a vigorous eight-week public beta.
The difference is this: in a real beta, your users are testers, and they know that they’re testers, and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel where everyone – developers and testers both – knows that the testing period will be over. But if your users are customers and see themselves only as such, then you shouldn’t be taking their money for beta-quality software.
We took a little bit longer to ship our hosted Joyent Connector service than we originally planned (that laughter you hear is because of the “little bit” part), but when our original ship date came and the software wasn’t ready, we took more time to get it right, rather than give customers software that wasn’t ready but slathered with “beta” cream. If you go for perfect, you’ll never ship. But “good enough” is possible, and beta-quality software isn’t good enough.
On the other side of the coin are companies like Google and Flickr, who use the “beta” label for web apps that are renowned as some of the best-designed, best-engineered, most-useful, most-fun in the world. What exactly is “beta” about Gmail or Flickr?
Do the millions of people using these services consider themselves testers, or users?