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Is Beta the new Vapor?

Twenty years ago, there was one industry list that every company wanted to avoid: The Vapor List. Created by Stewart Alsop, the founder of DEMO and then publisher of PC Letter, the List counted the weeks, then months (and in a few rare occasions, years) between the time a software product was announced and when it actually shipped to customers.

At a time when dozens of new companies were scrambling to put software on the then new PC platform, the list was Stewart's way of calling software makers on the practice of announcing products to put a stake in the ground and slow the sales of competing programs. Why buy from X now, when Y claims it will sell a more feature-rich product in the very near future?

Often, that future wasn't very near, and it was, ultimately, an embarrassment to have your product on the Vapor list month after month. Stewart's list went a long way toward curbing the practice of pre-announcing software in order to stall the market and gain competitive advantage through hype rather than substance.

I was thinking about the Vapor List last week as I talked with one-half dozen or so DEMO hopefuls who need (want?) to "beta test" their Web-based products before they launch. Without a doubt, these companies want to shake the bugs out of their services. They also want to lay claim to a particular market segment or product concept. So they slap "beta" on the title banner and throw open a Website to the public.

With "beta" on the banner, the theory goes, customers are warned that they are in the Web equivalent of a hard-hat zone. They enter at their own risk. Meanwhile, the site will exploit those risk takers to advance their company-building agenda.
The word "beta" has become a Get Out of Jail Free card for developers who want to get to market and amass customers more than test the usability, stability, or viability of their product. Beta in this context is no longer a means to polish a product for market. Instead, it's a tactic along the path of business development designed to capture the attention of investors and raise valuations.

"We throw open the doors to our beta and look, Mr. Investor, at all those pretty customers who are using our site."

No doubt, the process of software testing with customers is different in today's Web-based world than in the packaged desktop era. Still, a discipline of a beta process seems lost in the transition. Where beta was once about product quality, it's now about business building, customer land grabs, and market validation.

The former can take place in private, invitation-only product tests. Real users are the key to validating design and functionality. They, along with automated agents, are essential to testing scalability of Web applications, and they are quite able to do these things behind closed doors and without great fanfare.

The "quiet public beta," as some have recently positioned their plans to me, has a different purpose altogether. Its purpose is to test traction in the market. That's well and good. But let's not call it "beta." Instead, call it what it is, a product launch.

Otherwise, we may need to resurrect Stewart's idea and institute the Beta List - sites that claim they're not ready for prime time, while playing for prime audiences.

Which sites are on your Beta List? Leave your comments below.


• You get an "Amen" from me, Chris. I was up at a local college last week talking to about 100 students in a web-based business classes, and most identified "beta programs" as a quick way to box in perceived competitors and lock down a market segment in advance of polished code. Many of the students also identified beta programs as being a good way to get wiggle room in the days before a "true" launch. The conversations were disturbing for me to hear.

- Jim Forbes

• Like provisional patents, there should be a date by which you need to "file," or you lose precedence on claims.

- Madhavan

• What a timely post! Your point is well taken, Chris. As PR professionals, closely working with start-ups and larger companies, we definitely walk that line to ensure that "beta" is truly what it is.

- Audrey Craipain

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Chris Shipley is the executive producer of NetworkWorld's DEMO Conferences, Editor of DEMO Letter, and a technology industry analyst for nearly 20 years. She can be reached at Shipley, has covered the personal technology business since 1984, and is regarded as one of the top analysts covering the technology industry today. Shipley has worked as a writer and editor for variety of technology consumer magazines, including PC Week, PC Magazine, PC/Computing, and InfoWorld, US Magazine, and Working Woman. She has written two books on communications and Internet technology, has won numerous awards for journalistic excellence, and was named the No. 1 newsletter editor by Marketing Computers for two years in a row. To subscribe to DEMOletter please visit:

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Mike responded 8 years ago: #1

I will say that betas are at least substantively different than products on the vaporware lists since they are actually available and, for the most part, usable.

It's true that companies often rush quickly into a beta period, but unlike vaporware, there is a significant risk of people being turned off or disappointed with an incomplete unpolished product. If you release too soon, you may have achieved the opposite of good hype.

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