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Why web apps can get away with being in beta for a long time

An article was recently posted on the Wall Street Journal website entitled “WSJ.com – For Some Technology Companies, ‘Beta’ Becomes a Long-Term Label” which asked the question how can companies get away with leaving software in a “beta” state for so long. Google is notorious for doing it – Gmail has been around for at least two years and is still tagged as beta. In fact, many people are using Gmail as their primary email address. There are many real-world analogies as to why you wouldn’t do this in the article, so I won’t bother repeating them here.

It does bring up an interesting point though. How come web software can get away with, nay, thrive on, releasing beta software?

Traditionally, the main thrust of software was the underlying business logic. It has only been in recent times where user interfaces and user experience has become important. It is often impossible to know exactly how a user is going to react when they start to use an interface. Being in a constant state of beta allows designers to be constantly tweaking elements of the design. If things change drastically, users will put it down to the fact that the site is still in beta.

This is relevent when adding features. As a developer, you may find a new “must have” feature that you are sure that your web site requires. It is a more effective use of your time to build a version quickly, so that you can gauge it’s popularity, and then concentrate on making it robust if you know it is worth-your-while. You couldn’t get away with this without being in a beta state.

Obviously, this isn’t a mechanism for everyone. I would even think about using a security product that was in beta. But for web apps that aren’t doing anything mission critical then it should be fine.