Beta, beta, who's got the beta? Everybody!

The Web 2.x bubble machine is turning out betas faster than you can say "Lawrence Welk". Somebody decided it was time to keep track of them all, and lo, the Museum of Modern Betas was born.

Naturally the mere existence of a beta would be meaningless without a way to rank them (oh, let's!), so the MOMB folks have obligingly provided frequently-refreshed lists of the Top 100 and the "Hot 100". Metrics are based on bookmarks registered into del.icio.us, itself listed as a 'beta', along with Flickr, Google News, and some other rather long-lived 'beta' sites. If you wonder what all the hoopy froods are up to, there's also a list of invite-only and alpha sites.

Looking at the rankings of beta sites, I'm moved to suggest that perhaps after the first year of non-invite-only site participation, sites should consider themselves 'post-beta', eh? I am a huge fan of some of these sites, especially del.icio.us and Flickr, but calling them beta sites just seems very wrong somehow. There's an emerging generation of betaware, long-lived and extremely functional sites and software that stay perpetually in pre-release mode. Hearing myself saying that like it's a bad thing, I realize that it's time for a cultural reappraisement. Because I think it's a good thing, and a good process, but with a bad name.

We've seen an evolution in project management from 'milestone meetings' where changes are bad things to a feedback-loop process that's based on the idea of constant re-engineering. Nobody's prescient enough to predict everything that a release will need. By creating these sharp release-cycle plateaus, organizations create a culture where the drive for new features is a hugely competitive process within engineering, and the impetus to fix bugs is very, very small after 1.0. When a site like Flickr or Google News is perpetually in beta, it sends a message to engineering that fixing bugs is still important. It also sends a message that adding features is something that can still be done with a bit of spontaneity and playfulness, rather than being like an episode of Survivor: whose feature will make the cut?!

I think there's still a sweet spot waiting to be found out there between 1.0 and perpetual beta. It combines the agility of the beta culture with some of the rigor and dependabilty of the release-driven process. Not enough to strangle it, but enough so that you don't feel like things will change out from under you on a week by week process. I think that to discover it firsthand, I'll need to get more involved with development-- which would be why I'm out there learning Ruby and AJAX.


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