06 Dec When do you go from "beta" to "product launch"?
As the deadline to finalize the lineup for DEMO 2006 nears, I’ve had plenty of conversations with product developers asking just what constitutes a product launch.
Does a product in “beta” – variously defined as the first roughed-out code or a well-tested application – qualify as launch-ready? Must I have customers in the queue and ready to buy in order to launch? What about a shipping product that we’ve only talked about with our first 10 implementation sites?
It’s an odd question, perhaps – you would think product managers and marketers would know better when their products are ready for the harsh critiques of the public markets. Interestingly, the question seems to be cyclical – it’s one that comes and goes according to swings in the technology market.
In the years that I’ve led DEMO – this upcoming conference will be my 10th – I’ve observed at least two full cycles of this question. In more conservative times, the question was not often asked – it was assumed that one should introduce a market when it is ready to be sold and supported. More typically, in periods when market pressures are less intense, savvy start-ups believe that the more work they do while under the radar of competitors, the bigger advantage they will have as they take a complete, well-running product to market.
When a market heats up, start-ups feel intense pressure to put a stake in the ground, claiming a first-to-market advantage to drive valuation and (all too often) a quick exit. In the go-go years of the late ’90s, the question was a mask for the underlying desire to rush to market. It might have been asked differently: “How much do we really need to get done on this product before you’ll let us come to DEMO?” In those days, beta (and often alpha) code passed for version 1.0.
After the market bust in mid-2000, nobody was asking any variation of this question. The urgency went out of the market. Customers weren’t buying much, so there was no need to rush a product to market. The better judgment was to take the time to build a product right. When the product did ship, calling it version 1.x or even 2.0 was a reasonable moniker.
The early years of this decade have been a bit quiet that way. The technology coming to market in the past two to three years has been far more mature, on average, than the products rushed to market between 1998-2000.
But the question of “What is a launch?” is back. There are those who ask the question because they have taken a Google-like approach to product introduction – as long as you put the word “Beta” on your Web service, you are forgiven for any bugs and glitches. Then when the product needs a PR boost, they turn to DEMO as a venue to “launch” the product. For DEMO to maintain its “seen here first” position, companies that take this approach ask for a very fine judgment call on my part. I end up evaluating not just the product, but the market traction of the beta program.
Other companies are so very certain that they are the only ones on the planet working on a key idea, that they would rather hold their cards very close to the vest. Announcing a product too early in its beta cycle tips their hand and erases any perceived first-to-market advantage.
Between these two extremes are companies that have toiled away for the past five years with nary a notice from the markets. They are relatively mature companies that few have heard of – except, of course, the Tier One customers who have been happily using their products.
The frequency, as well as the nuances, of the launch question suggest to me an interesting dynamic in the technology market. It says to me that the market is emerging from a long nap. While some were sleeping, others were working to establish a market position, and now they are ready to claim what they have earned.
Others sprung to their feet, awakened by a rude alarm. They sense the coming of the Great Uptick, so they jockey for position in what they imagine will be another wild ride.
I suspect we’re in for a velocity change, spurred on by Web 2.0. But don’t expect to party like it’s 1999. The dynamics of this market are considerably different from Web 1.0.
And that’s something worth talking about next week. Stay tuned…
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