Perpetual Betas

Last modified on September 25th, 2008

One of my major criticisms of Google over the last few years has been the state of most of their products. While many of them are initially innovative and useful, they usually fall by the way side and seemingly get abandoned. The “beta” moniker seems to be ever-present on most of their services, leading one to almost believe that there is no such thing as a finish product within the walls of Google.

I just read this article where someone took the time to figure out just how many of Google’s products are in beta. The verdict? Nearly half of them, including the four year old gmail product and google docs.

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

Google responded to the criticisms with the following:

We have very high internal metrics our consumer products have to meet before coming out of beta. Our teams continue to work to improve these products and provide users with an even better experience. 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. 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.

I’ve hit Google’s websites many times and encountered broken functionality and dead links/images — clearly the internal bar isn’t that high for releasing or updating a product. In addition, beta has always traditionally meant “software that isn’t quite done yet.” Instead of trying to redefine that word, why not just come up with something new, or simply take the stance that all your products are perpetually in a state of flux/development and reserve the beta moniker for what it was meant for.

In my opinion, the development flux and perpetual betas that go on at Google are pretty much a direct result of having a flat organizational structure where engineers dictate direction. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing, just that it’s one of the trade-offs with a company structured that way.

One response to “Perpetual Betas”

  1. Allie says:

    It’s true, and not only that… but I’ve been hearing a lot lately about how investors and stockholders are having a hard time with Google these days, as it’s quite difficult to “value” the company, and predict future value.

    No one can really figure out exactly how Google makes money…

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