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"Beta" traditionally refers to software that isn't finished but made available for pre-completion testing and feedback. It also means that using that software entails risk.

I'm having a problem with <some non-Google software package> version <something> Beta. Can you help?

Before I answer that, I want to make sure you understand what the word "Beta" means. It's not exactly the same everywhere, but as long as the software isn't a Google service, the meaning is fairly consistent.

It means you're going to have problems with it.

"Beta" is "β" the second letter of the Greek alphabet, after Alpha (α).

When used to refer to software, "Beta" is short for "Beta-test" - a period where the software is technically "feature complete" - meaning no new features will be added - and presumably stable enough for most common usages to actually work. (Contrast with "Alpha Test" which happens earlier, and is often not feature complete and even more unstable.)

But note carefully: it's a Beta test - hence it's "Beta software". By definition Beta software is not finished and is known to have bugs, perhaps even serious ones.

"By definition Beta software is not finished and is known to have bugs, perhaps even serious ones."

Many Beta tests are private, invitation only. The number of users is kept controlled so as to be able to more efficiently control the quality of feedback and to handle the quantity. A private Beta test almost always includes specific instructions for reporting bugs, and getting support.

During a private Beta, "normal" support channels are not used, and will often have no clue as to the specifics of the Beta software.

A "public Beta" is nothing more than the incomplete Beta software released to the public for further testing. Feedback from real-world usage is often very valuable for identifying problems that need to be resolved before the product is finally released. You'll often see a flurry of announcements in the press when a major product goes into public Beta, because then anyone can use it and try it out.

Support for public Betas is typically restricted. The manufacturer may choose the public beta to also test its normal support channels, but quite often that doesn't happen. Beta support is both limited, and typically happens through venues such as support sites or news groups specific to that particular product's Beta test.

"The bottom line is that you don't want to rely on Beta software - it will have problems."

The bottom line is that you don't want to rely on Beta software - it will have problems. And as I said, support in resolving those problems will be seriously limited. If you actually plan to use and rely on the software, do not use the Beta version. It will fail. Even if you're lusting after all the new whiz-bang features, you are asking for trouble if you plan to rely on a Beta version of almost any software package. Use the most recently released and fully supported version instead.

Now, if you want to play - if you don't care that things may fail. If you don't care that a bug in the Beta software might crash your computer or wipe out all your information, then by all means, try the Beta. Be careful to fully back up, or use a machine you don't care about and could reformat if the worst happens. Be sure to help the quality of the released product by reporting the problems that you do experience through the recommended channels and as completely as you can. That's exactly what a Beta is for - collecting the problems that real people like you experience, and from there determining which need to be resolved before release.

And then there's Google.

Google has annoyed a lot of people in the industry by leaving products in what many call "perpetual Beta". GMail, for example, has been out for well over a year, it's rock solid (from what I hear and experience), and yet it's still labeled "Beta".

As far as I can tell, "Beta" means something else to Google than it does to the rest of the world. For all intents and purposes, Google apparently treats Beta as a final release.

As a result, most all of my comments above describing the risks of using Beta software actually don't apply if that software from Google and has been out more than, say, a couple of months.

Now, back to your question:

I'm having a problem with <some non-Google software package> version <something> Beta. Can you help?

No, I cannot.

Beta software will have problems and the problems will change with each new Beta release. The manufacturer of that software should have provided specific support and problem reporting venues that you should use instead, if you're helping to test the product.

If you're not evaluating the Beta, or helping to test the product, then my recommendation is that you uninstall, and revert to the current released, non-Beta version of the product.

Article C2671 - May 31, 2006 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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16 Comments
Dan Ullman
May 31, 2006 10:55 AM

Does anyone else smell the slow burn of someone who should not have downloaded I.E. 7> (grin)

Leo A. Notenboom
May 31, 2006 10:58 AM

:-) That would certainly be a candidate, but no ... the original question referenced a different product. There are many to choose from, actually.

Carl G.
June 2, 2006 7:35 PM

I downloaded IE 7.0. What a mistake! Ended up re-formatting my hard-drive, even though I un-installed it, AND went back to the restore point. Couldn't even open up web-pages, the files were so corrupted. Don't do it!!!

Eli Coten
June 3, 2006 4:37 PM

I have found that some betas are ok and some aren't but then I suppose that's exactly the nature of beta software.

I found that Microsoft Windows Live Messenger BETA was stable until they released the latest beta version, which has compatibility issues with Windows Internet Explorer 7 beta.

Another questions thats been bugging me lately... what on earth does "beta" mean to Google. Gmail has been Beta for ages, and as you said its perfectly stable. Same goes for Google Local and all the other services that Google label 'beta'.

Dan Ullman
June 5, 2006 2:01 PM

Beta in gmail, I have heard, has more to do with the fact they are still adding services to it. Notice that is still has been publicly released. To get a gmail account you still have to jump through some hoops.

danullman
June 5, 2006 2:03 PM

"Notice that is still has been publicly released"
should read
"Notice that is still has NOT been..."

Leo A. Notenboom
June 5, 2006 2:11 PM

The only hoop you need to jump through is to get an invite from another GMail user.

And in that spirit: you can email "askleo at gmail.com" to ask for an invite, and I'll happily send you one.

Ringo Star
January 24, 2009 8:17 AM

yeah. I was wondering if the new Internet Explorer 8 beta is safe becuase i kinda want to try it...

I strongly recommend against trying Beta software, unless you completely backup and be prepared to restore to that backup when things go wrong.
- Leo
26-Jan-2009

ricky martin
January 25, 2009 2:09 PM

um yeah, its fine, im using it right now actually

Carl
February 17, 2009 9:32 AM

I'm sure glad I read this article and the other Beta article. I will never, repeat never, again try anything that begings with "Beta."
I did it once and once is enough for a novice.

Alex
April 7, 2010 9:21 PM

I'm downloading Microsoft Office 2010.. I'm wondering if i should cancel it or not

AN Other
September 25, 2011 12:00 PM

One useful bit of advice; always, always use a Virtual Machine (VM) for beta testing, especially Windows.

If you're using AutoCAD etc. then this may be a slightly different matter but I'm not that sure... never used AutoCAD betas really.

John Cryan
February 20, 2012 11:50 AM

I am so pleased I have read this article,it has been most informative and have taken your advise on board.I will not be touching anything referring to beta.

RJ
July 23, 2012 6:44 AM

So - when Google posts a "warning" that its directions (even walking directions) are "in beta," does this mean they are unfinished or unreliable? So strange!
Hope someone can answer this. Thank you.
RJ

Mark J
July 23, 2012 3:18 PM

@RJ
Google has a different standard when it comes to Beta. Chrome was in its Beta stage for years before they called it a final release version, but that's explained in the article.

Gurminder
March 30, 2013 12:11 AM

Very helpful article, Thanks for increasing my knowledge.

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