At Last Google Apps Drops The Beta Label

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You can’t have it both ways, says Jim Rapoza. If Google expects users to pay for a service, then it can’t call it a beta. Beta software is not ready for prime-time, by definition

Finally, our long nightmare is over.

No, I’m not talking about the economy, that’s still a mess. What I’m talking about is the misguided and confusing practice of referring to products as beta that are intended to be used by people and businesses.

In the same week that it announced the still-far-off Chrome OS, Google made an announcement with more immediate effect: namely, that it is finally taking the beta tag off its Google Apps products. In so doing Google has essentially admitted that it probably wasn’t a great idea to pretty much call something “unfinished” and expect businesses to want to use it.

With this announcement, I get to indulge in a little bit of “I told you so.” Two years ago, I wrote a column entitled “Beta Products Are Unfinished Business” in which I talked about the growing practice of Google and other Web-based application vendors calling a product beta but then expecting businesses to pay to use these services (or use them at all) for important tasks.

As I said at the time, and as Google has admitted with its recent announcement, lots of companies aren’t comfortable with using beta products for anything more than testing. No one wants to be the IT manager who chooses a “beta” product to handle an important business task, has an inevitable problem occur and then has to explain to the boss why the company was using a product which, by its own developers’ admission, wasn’t quite ready for prime time.

At first this trend of perpetual betas was somewhat amusing. Lots of people joked about Gmail’s long beta cycle, like it was an old Saturday Night Live skit (Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead, and Google Gmail is still beta).

But lots of other Web application vendors decided to follow Google’s lead and call their products beta even when they were actively selling the product to customers. And their argument for calling their products beta was somewhat legit. After all, everyone knows that Web-based services are being constantly upgraded and don’t tend to have traditional product release cycles. Calling it beta says that this product is being constantly worked on and hopefully improved.

This is true. And everyone who uses Web-based services does know that these applications are being changed all the time and that users are in essence constantly “beta testing” the new changes. But if everyone knows this, there’s no reason to use the beta term. It simply adds confusion and carries the wrong connotation.

So just as Google started the trend of perpetual betas, maybe this new announcement will also end the trend for all vendors and we can see beta return to its traditional meaning, namely that this is a product that can be tested and used for evaluation but should not be used for day-to-day or important business use.

Businesses pick products for lots of reasons: They are looking for products that solve a business problem, that increase productivity and that give them an edge. And they want to know that these products are in top form and that the company stands behind them.

Calling your product beta is the same thing as saying that it’s not ready, that it is unfinished. Hopefully this practice is now finished, and businesses can now tell clearly tell which products are ready for prime time and which are just for testing.

eWEEK Labs Chief Technology Analyst Jim Rapoza can be reached at