GenuineVC David Beisel's Perspective on Digital Change

August 31, 2005

One of the great benefits of Web2.0 consumer internet services is that the product cycles have diminished. No longer are the next versions available and shipped every eighteen months like traditional shrink-wrapped software. Instead, when a new feature is ready, then it’s ready to go live to beta test. Google has led the charge of conditioning of us to view these beta versions as an ever evolving service. After all, GMail is still in beta well over two years after its initial release.

For startups, however, is there market adoption risk in the perpetual beta? Or, more importantly, is there risk in launching with only a half-baked or quarter-baked service? Yes, I know and agree with all of the virtues extolled in the continuous launch approach – immediate feedback from customers, quicker time-to-market, ability for building buzz. It seems to me, though, that the widespread early beta launching perhaps has gone just a little too far.

It appears that the word “beta” is slowly losing its original meaning. Or maybe it’s just evolving. Wikipedia says a “beta release usually represents the first feature complete version” of a product. Is that really true of all Web2.0 start-ups slapped with the “beta” moniker? Perhaps “alpha” (“still awaits full debugging or full implementation of all its functionality”) or “pre-alpha” (“not feature complete; that is, it is at the stage where designers are still wondering about what functionalities the product should have”) are more suitable labels.

The purpose of this post isn’t to complain over semantics, but about suggesting that startups more actively think about managing the expectations of its users. Many times I have visited new sites (wearing my consumer hat, not my VC hat) and been completely turned off because of the utter lack of functionality of the beta version. Will I forgive them and return at a later date remembering that, after all, it was a beta? Maybe, but less likely. Everything’s a beta these days, so why should I be any more tolerant of deficiencies? While the early adopter community may be forgiving and conscious of the Web2.0 beta paradigm, the average consumer is not.

I am not suggesting that we go back in time and resurrect extended product cycles. Hardly. I am suggesting that emerging web services startups should give some deliberate thought about what constituencies are ready to see a release – and especially a new launch – before it is opened up to the general public.

  • Patrick Smith

    I agree that the rougher an initial release is, the more barriers there are to getting people excited about it — and the greater the risk. For example, I have yet to use evdb because of the sub-standard UI and the lack of events populating it — even though the idea feels right.

    But early sub-par releases handled responsively can actually be a good thing.

    I wrote recently about my experience with TextDrive — by any normal standard of hosting performance, namely uptime, they’ve been pretty terrible.

    But because they’ve plugged into a particular community in the right way, and let everyone behind the curtain, and acknowledged and been responsive about the problems, I’ve not only been willing to put up with their sub-par performance, I’ve become a fan and am rooting them on. I’m not alone — the tone on their forums is decidely upbeat.

    In short, you’re right to point out that a beta release on its own isn’t sufficient. There’s definitely a risk calculation that entrepreneurs have to make and figuring out the elements that will help overcome the barriers of an imperfect product.

  • Raj Bala

    It’s funny — I just blogged about something similar recently. The consumer market doesn’t really seem to care that web services are perpetually in beta (if they even really understand what it means), but try to get someone responsible for mission critical applications to even consider something that’s remotely beta — it won’t happen.

  • Steven Livingstone

    I just read We the Media where Dan Gillmor talks of his interest in Google News. He wrote the book in early 2002 and Google News was already in beta at that point for some time. Now, more than 3 years later it is still in beta.

    For years i versioned and released alpha and beta versions of code. With Vidyo i haven’t really bothered – when you start it’s a matter of whether people see value in what you have and that takes time. If it is good they’ll use it, whether alpha or not.

    On the web as you say all meaning has been lost. Personally I think most services (especially web 2.0) are alpha. I think the key point is that many services are thinking about their revenue model – while they are in beta they can still do and say all for free. It then gives them the option to move out of beta and start to charge. There must be a zillion Web 2.0 sites out there saying “free in beta”.

    Personally, I think you have to go with the community. With a brand new service, until you get community feedback and reach a tipping point allowing some way of making money from it you are always in beta as you might need to change your entire strategy to make money.

    FWIW i remember certain very big software companies making version 0.1 – if that the first release or 1/10th what the first release will be?

    – steven – Web 2.0, Beta 1.1, Release 0.95

  • kellan

    And then we saw a couple of betas launch last week where they label really should have been “prototype”, or “proof-of-concept” :)

  • sean harper

    One reason for this could be that architecture has evolved to the point where features can be added in an incremental fashion, not requiring modifications to other parts of code. This is what OO has promised for such a long time and web services / SOA, etc. promise now.

    If the whole app doesn’t need to be tested again after the addition of each feature, it reduces overhead and releases us from the old versioning methodology that nobody liked anyway.

    This reduction in overhead of new releases is also true on the user side, since web apps dont interfere with the OS environment.

    It could be argued that, due to architectural changes, the old concept of beta is no longer relevant and is just a linguistic legacy.

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