5 Reasons Google Loves Perpetual Betas

Google's Gmail has been in beta for four years. Software beta testing usually only lasts a few months, six at the most, for more normal software companies. So why does Google throw software out there and leave it in a perpetual beta state? That's the question Paul McNamara asks in his blog post. Pingdom says that 22 of Google's 49 products (45%) are in beta. Most normal engineering and product managers would have been fired long ago if they couldn't get their products out of beta and into a GA (general availability) state, but we all know Google doesn't think this way when it comes to releasing software. Matter of fact, Google's approach has influenced even Microsoft's release approach. Live Mesh, Office Live Workspace and many other Microsoft online software have remained in beta for lengthy periods. 

So why does Google release software this way? Here's my serious, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, reasons Google does open ended software betas.

1. Low Expectations. Beta software brings lower user expectations. They're more tolerant of bugs, missing features, poor design, etc., when users get software for free and it doesn't have a detrimental impact to their productivity or other software applications. It's also easy to catch Microsoft sleeping, only to wake up to find millions of Google software users who've switched to a new alternative. At the same time Google's putting beta stuff out their, Microsoft's saddled with everything entailed in shipped GA software. Google can be much more nibble with this new software model than traditional shrink-wrapped software.

2. New Rules. Google's reasons for bringing online and desktop software into the market are multifold, with plans for much different results than most other software companies. Google's attack on Microsoft isn't your standard frontal assault. Google's using gorilla warfare tactics, with smaller products, resembling smaller raids and strikes on Microsoft camps. Unseating Microsoft as the world's dominant commercial software company would be difficult for anyone to attempt, including Google, unless you change the rules of the game. That's exactly what Google's attempting to do, making Microsoft respond to Google's rules instead of the other way around.

3. Mess With Microsoft. Best way to put a competitor off their game is keep them in a defensive, reactive mode. Keep them guessing, and responding to every little and big offensive move Google makes. And sometimes it's not obvious what software Google's serious about and which might be trial balloons or simply pet projects. It's messed with Microsoft's head, but Microsoft is turning things around with their "two can play this game" strategy. 

4. See What Sticks. Notice how Google doesn't have big software failures black marks tainting their brand image? Google puts software out there, sees what users and developers have to say, improve it, and keep iterating. Users vote by their actions whether Google's software is useful and should continue, or if they don't find it useful. It's a great way to try out ideas, get user feedback, and figure out what the market wants, all without incurring the big commitments and failures of traditionally released software products. 

5. Still Make Money. Google served up ads may not show up quite everywhere, but many of Google's software products are free and in beta because they feed Google's ad business. Google's also taken to charging for some of their software, at least more functional versions of them, such as in the case with Gmail and Google Docs. But those are beta products. Not to many companies get away with charging for beta products like Google does.

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