Google has gone and redefined 'beta'

22 out of Google's 49 products are in beta, including such established stalwarts as Gmail, Google Docs and Google Finance.

The question of why so many Google products are classified "beta" -- and classified thusly for so long -- has knocked around the tech press for some time. However, no one really seemed to know the answer, at least no one outside of Google.

Last week, the question begged for a concrete answer after someone finally took the time to do a hard count of all those betas. According to Web monitoring company Pingdom, almost half of Google's products carry the ubiquitous "beta" tag, including Gmail, which debuted way back in the middle of our nation's last presidential election season, April 2004.

A four-and-a-half-year-old product that's still in beta? What gives?

I had no idea, as noted, but set about getting an answer after Pingdom determined that 22 out of Google's 49 products are in beta, including such established stalwarts as Gmail, Google Docs and Google Finance. (Pingdom intentionally left Google Labs out of the mix.)

It turns out that Google doesn't think about or use the word beta the way that most of the rest of us have always done ... and still do. We'll dissect that explanation in a moment, but first more about the tally.

"Everyone knows Google is fond of the beta label on its products, but we wanted some actual numbers, so we went through all of Google's products to see how many of them are in beta," Pingdom analyst Peter Alguacil tells me. "It turned out to be a whopping 45 percent. As far as we know, there is no other company that does this to the extent that Google does."

From Pingdom's blog post: "Some products you can understand why they are in beta, like Knol, Google Alerts, Custom Search, Google Chrome, etc. However, a lot of products that you wouldn't really expect are still labeled as beta. ... We're so used to seeing the little 'beta' tag next to the various Google product logos that we almost don't register it anymore. We even had to double-check that Gmail really still was in beta."

So I asked Google for an explanation. Here's the statement I received, along with my attempt at translation.

"We have very high internal metrics our consumer products have to meet before coming out of beta."

Excellent. Who would expect anything less from Google?

"Our teams continue to work to improve these products and provide users with an even better experience."

As they should.

"We believe beta has a different meaning when applied to applications on the Web, where people expect continual improvements in a product. On the Web, you don't have to wait for the next version to be on the shelf or an update to become available. Improvements are rolled out as they're developed."

So, people expect continual improvement in their Web applications. Gotcha. What's that have to do with them being labeled beta?

"Rather than the packaged, stagnant software of decades past, we're moving to a world of regular updates and constant feature refinement where applications live in the cloud."

Ah, the cloud. They're labeled beta because they live in the cloud? ... No.

Allow me to summarize: Google has decided to strip the word "beta" of its traditional meaning, while simultaneously continuing to use it in a traditional manner, which all but assures that no one will understand what they're trying to do.

Either that or their explanation is still in beta.

Send your own explanations to buzz@nww.com.

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Paul McNamara

Network World
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