The NeverEnding Beta (Google, 2004)

Remember when Gmail first arrived? Unless you’re unlucky enough to be called John Smith you probably got the username you wanted first time, and without having to add six digits on to the end. Then you experienced the fun of sending invites to your mates so they could join you in your exclusive little club – after all, Gmail was still in beta, they couldn’t have every Tom, Dick and Harry overwhelming it before it hit its stride.

The NeverEnding Beta (Google, 2004)

googlemailFast-forward four and half years and guess what? Google Mail, as it’s now known, still has that little BETA label under it, and it shows no sign of buggering off.

Over at the Royal Pingdom they’ve gone through the whole Google catalog and counted the applications that are in beta today. While 22 out of 49 may sound reasonable – Google is always coming up with innovations, after all – when you realise that these include Google Mail, Docs, and Product Search, you have to wonder if Google interprets the word beta in the same way as the rest of us.

The chaps over at Network World thought exactly the same thing, so they put it to Google: what exactly does beta mean to your product development cycle? The answer says a lot about how online computing is changing the way we go about things.

“We believe beta has a different meaning when applied to applications on the Web, where people expect continual improvements in a product.  On the Web, you don’t have to wait for the next version to be on the shelf or an update to become available.  Improvements are rolled out as they’re developed.  Rather than the packaged, stagnant software of decades past, we’re moving to a world of regular updates and constant feature refinement where applications live in the cloud.”

So Google’s online products are constantly evolving things, that much is obvious to anyone who’s used them – but by this logic those beta labels won’t ever be removed. In ten years time Google Mail (BETA) will be the most complete in-progress software available, and Chrome (BETA) will still be the new kid on the block next to the arthritic Internet Explorer 18 and Firefox XIII.

Maybe it’s a perception thing, with Google afraid of looking like one of the boring mainstream. Or perhaps it just likes the cushion those beta labels afford it should anything go wrong. Either way, Google’s own NeverEnding Story is beginning to get a little bit silly.

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