Astute CLOs keep all their programs in beta. A dozen years ago, software developers said a program was “in beta” if it was nearly finished but not ready for release. (“Alpha” meant the application was a collection of scraps that only a developer could run.)
Netscape changed the meaning of beta forever. Instead of limiting beta tests to a small, handpicked group of users outside the company, Netscape posted beta releases on the Internet. Anyone could download the latest beta version. Many of us did. Improvements in the Web’s early days came fast and furious, so we downloaded betas time after time after time. Netscape received feedback and suggestions from thousands of users. This accelerated product development, and that led to even more frequent beta releases. Running the most recent beta version was a sign of derring-do.
Traditional software companies continued to release new versions every year or two rather than incrementally. Customers might not see new features until a year or two after they appeared in beta. This exacerbated customer frustration over missed deadlines. Journalists published lists of vaporware. At one point, Microsoft was more than a year late delivering a promised release of Windows.
Years later, Google became the poster child for the perpetual beta. Google Search was beta for more than a year. Unlike Netscape, which offered an official release alongside the betas, Google offered only beta. Google Labs highlights programs that are pre-beta experiments.
Google is not simply releasing products before they are finished, because from the word “go”, Google’s betas have been more reliable and polished than most firms’ final releases. Rather, Google is setting high expectations. The implication is that what’s good enough for other software companies is only a beta release for Google.
Beta users have a different relationship with vendors. Their input is valued. What used to be a complaint becomes a suggestion for improvement. The developer and the user are partners, working together to improve the product. This is why Tim O’Reilly says that the perpetual beta phenomenon is a core aspect of Web 2.0.
A developer who calls a release beta recognizes that nothing is ever finished. There’s always room for improvement. This lack of arrogance is endearing, but something more profound is going on.
Everything is connected to everything else. That’s the heart of the network age. And it’s why every product is beta. The world is forever changing: Everything flows. Thus, when a company says a product is beta, it demonstrates its recognition that nothing lasts forever and there’s always room for improvement.
Peter Drucker said the purpose of business is to create and maintain a customer. A developer who says, “Here’s what we’ve got now, but something better is on the way,” forms a relationship of mutual self-interest with the customer. The developer who says, “This product is final. We won’t be doing anything more with it. This is as good as it gets,” gives the buyer no incentive to participate in a continuing relationship. Beta empowers the customer to decide what’s good enough. Nothing’s set in stone. Nothing is absolute.
It’s even more important to label learning beta than software. All learning is cocreation, a product of a learner and an outside agent.
A professor gave her class a paper on urban sociology to read, explaining that they would be tested at the end of the hour. The professor gave another class the same paper and instructions plus a warning that the material was controversial; it might not be correct. In other words, the paper was beta.
The group that read the beta paper scored higher. Why? Because uncertainty engages the mind.
This is why it makes sense to label all learning activities beta. Engage the learners’ minds. For that matter, mark plans beta: It will invite participation. And make your department beta — after all, everything’s an experiment.