Beta--the four-letter word of Web 2.0

CNET News.com's Caroline McCarthy says that getting your site into a full version doesn't have to be scary. Really.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read
To the Web 2.0 crowd: I'd like to have a few words with you.

We're well into January, and I'm guessing that by now you've probably ditched your New Year's resolutions or, at least, are "reconsidering" their feasibility. Don't worry because I have a new one for you.

You're going to get your site out of beta this year.

I know it sounds impossible. You've probably come to rely on those four little letters, positioned snugly next to your site's cerulean-and-pink logo. To you, it's a reassurance. It means it's OK if the photo upload tool occasionally times out, if the YouTube embed codes aren't quite working yet, if the Google Maps mashups sometimes display Saskatchewan instead of San Francisco.

It's OK, you tell yourself, because there are a ton of new Web services out there that proudly tout their beta labels. Like Gmail, for example. It's one of Google's foremost success stories. It's been in beta since its 2004 launch. And that beta label is convenient because Gmail is still having issues, most notably the occasional outage but also some data problems. Lost all your address book contacts? Oops, blame the beta.

I haven't really been sure what to make of companies' insistence on keeping their products in beta. To me, it seems like a convenient way to avoid taking responsibility for technical issues. But I wanted to talk to an insider, so I dialed up one of the new-media entrepreneurs in my address book: Dina Kaplan, co-founder and chief operating officer of the New York-based video-blog hosting site Blip.tv. (It's in beta.) She reinforced my impression, at least at first.

"It's a wonderful cop-out," she said. "If a tiny feature doesn't work, or if someone has a minute problem with something, you can just say, 'Oh, we're in beta.'"

It's a wonderful cop-out. If a tiny feature doesn't work, or if someone has a minute problem with something, you can just say, 'Oh, we're in beta.'
--Dina Kaplan,
co-founder and COO,

But, Kaplan explained to me, being in a perpetual state of development is a fixture of the new Internet and it's quite likely here to stay.

"What's happened is that software development for the Web is very different now than it's been in the past. In the past, you'd be a six-month or year-long cycle. When you launched something, it would be perfect, or you'd at least hope it would be perfect. Now the launch is done in a much more iterative way."

I understand the importance of getting out a preliminary version of a site as quickly as possible. Internet start-ups sprout up with the speed and spontaneity of mushrooms after a rainstorm. For example, Kaplan said a fledgling version of Blip.tv launched within days of the initial idea's conception. If a small company decided to wait until its product was 100 percent ready before revealing it to the world, it would be taking a serious risk: another start-up could beat it to the punch, or worse, Google or Yahoo could launch a similar service that munches up that open niche of Web space as quickly as a rabbit eating those mushrooms. (For the bunny's sake, I hope they aren't poisonous.)

Here???s the catch. In the world of developers and entrepreneurs, "beta" may be synonymous with a state of constant evolution. But in the world of Web-application and social-media enthusiasts (myself included), "beta" means, "If something screws up, it's not really our fault." This is why the techies should consider weaning themselves off beta status.

After a few years, claiming that your Web site still can't be considered "full" gets a little silly. If the "iterative Web" is here to stay, which I believe it is, that philosophy might as well be applicable to launched-in-full sites as well. There's nothing wrong with an out-of-beta site getting a few tweaks, some new features, or even a facelift. Dropping beta status is a sign that a product's creators have confidence in it, that they believe in its present stability and future growth potential, that they're willing to establish it as a legitimate fixture of the Internet rather than a possible casualty of the potential Bubble 2.0.

(Hey, Google, why don't you show us that you have some faith in Gmail?)

And Kaplan, despite founding a new-media company that's had its service in beta for more than two years, acknowledges that there's some merit to removing that little crutch. "At a certain point you should probably take that 'beta' off because it just becomes this self-reinforcing thing," she said. "You kind of get caught up in the flexibility of the beta term."

Once you've dragged your product out of beta, you can move on to a few other resolutions, such as dropping the term "2.0" from your vocabulary while making sure you stop overusing the term "widget."

And a belated happy new year to one and all.