Google and other companies now abuse the term "beta" by leaving it on their products for as long as possible (up to five years, according to this story). One reason for this is surely to cover themselves if something goes wrong. We lost all your email? Oops, can’t help you — it’s just a beta version!
In a BusinessWeek commentary, Sarah Lacy points out how this situation makes no sense for critical applications like e-mail:
But somewhere amid all this Google-loving enthusiasm we all forgot one thing: Gmail is a beta project. A painful lesson, as it turned out. Yesterday, my husband went to get some important contact information out of his account and he got a quintessentially quirky message saying there was a server problem. Something like: “Cross your fingers and try again in a few seconds,” the screen read. For more than 24 hours he kept trying back and got the same message. Quirky quickly became loathsome.
Livid, he spent five straight hours trying to find somewhere to even report the problem. One obvious problem: You have to email them from your Gmail account. So I invited him again, he opened a new one. Still no progress. While trying to find any ray of hope, he came across a treasure trove of angry chat rooms on this very issue. People whose Gmail accounts had been down for weeks without a word back from customer support, resulting in missed appointments, missed job offers, and missing connections with friends. To read a few, just Google "Gmail" and the irksome line "Cross your fingers.” Well at least Google search helped him feel less alone, even if the company made no other attempt at solving the problem.
On several of these message boards someone had written a snotty note to the affect of, “It’s a beta, what do you expect?” But the truth is there is no such thing as beta testing email. It’s not an application like Froogle or Google Maps that you can run sometimes, not others. You either use it, or you don’t. And when you use it, you need it.
The maddening thing about covering Google as a reporter is they throw out all these betas and you never know what they are serious about, but until yesterday I didn’t realize how maddening that could be as a consumer. We’re seriously considering whether we should close our Gmail accounts altogether—at least until the company makes a greater commitment to supporting, improving, and maintaining it or at the very least provides some customer support. After all, it has been a “beta” for well over a year now. People rely on email. My message to Google? Get in or get out.
Link: When Betas Go Bad (BusinessWeek Online)
More commentary at Techdirt (including typically inane reader responses): Is It Still Beta Once People Rely On It.
I agree with Sarah Lacy’s comments. I also think you shouldn’t be allowed to label something "beta" (as in "beta testing") when you’re not actually soliciting feedback from users. If Google wants to be taken seriously as a software developer it should finish and support its projects properly.