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Why is almost half of Google in beta?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a beta is “a nearly complete prototype of a product.” In other words, a not-yet-finished product.

Google is known for keeping their products in beta (much) longer than most other companies. But exactly how many of their products are in beta? When we here at Pingdom investigated this, it turned out that out of the 49 Google products we could find, 22 are in beta. That’s 45%!

Note that we didn’t include any Google Labs products since they can be considered to be a “playground” for future products. If we had included those, the percent of beta products would have been much higher (57%).

Notable Google beta products

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.

Here are a few notable Google products that are still in beta:

  • Gmail
  • Google Docs
  • Orkut
  • Google Finance

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. :)

What are Google’s criteria for keeping something in beta?

We honestly don’t know. Perhaps Google is redefining the word “beta” itself.

Normally the beta label is only used for products that are not considered fully tested or that still lack important functionality. Gmail, to name a prominent example, has been around since April 2004. Orkut has been around since January 2004. And yet they are still in beta, after more than four years. There is no indication that they are unstable or lack functionality. Quite the opposite, people seem happy with them.

Is Google just playing it safe, keeping some products in perpetual beta? Will Gmail ever get out of beta?

There are also seems to be inconsistencies in how Google judges what products should remain in beta. Why is for example Google Finance in beta, but not Google News?

Charging money for a beta product

Google has paid options for Gmail and Docs (via Google Apps). So, how does that rhyme with these products being in beta? A beta product is by definition an unfinished product, which is usually not something you charge money for.

Is any other company getting away with this? We don’t know of any.

Google, the beta company

If anyone is aware of Google’s motivation for keeping for example Gmail and Orkut in perpetual beta, please let us know.

As far as we know, no other company keeps such a large portion of their products, especially ones that are used commercially, in beta. Google seems to be immensely fond of that beta label.

Perhaps we are seeing a small break in how Google labels its products, though. The newly released Google App Engine is not labeled as a beta, but is said to be a “preview release”. How that differs from a beta, we’re not quite sure…

We would love to hear your thoughts on this. It’s definitely a subject that is wide open for discussion.

UPDATE, September 25:

Paul McNamara over at Networkworld.com actually managed to pry a response from Google regarding their stance on betas. This is what the Google spokesperson had to say:

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.

Does this mean that the products that are NOT in beta (like Google Analytics and Blogger) are not being continually improved and refined…? :)

List of Google beta products

For those interested, these are the products we found that are in beta.

  • Alerts
  • Blog Search
  • Book Search
  • Google Chrome
  • Finance
  • Google Health
  • Patent search
  • Product Search
  • Scholar
  • Video
  • Custom Search
  • Calendar
  • Docs
  • Gmail
  • Knol
  • Orkut
  • Talk
  • Translate
  • Google Pack
  • Base
  • Image Labeler
  • News Archive Search


No Comments

> Is any other company getting away with this? We don’t know of any.
I can remember of a company selling a product called Millenium, not even worth a Google beta, yet sold.

Interesting.

I’d forgotten that Gmail was still beta, but you’re right. It’s right there in the logo. After all this time. Amazing!

My guess is that Google considers all his soft in BETA because they are always evolving, some features are added/changed almost daily, most of the changes are unnoticeable but still.

That’s also why there are no versions, as changes are integrated all the time, you don’t wait for the next version to add/change a feature.

I think Google is just playing it safe, they are trying to keep everything clean.

My first thought was that they wanted to capitalize on the product development and, while it’s still in beta, they may be able to classify any work on it at new product development. By doing so, they could be saving a lot of money.

To be fair, I’m very uninformed on the rules for project capitalization… but new product development vs bug fixes for a production product is a big distinction.

GrandCentral (bought by Google in July 2007) is also still in beta. Plus, the Grandcentral blog (http://blog.grandcentral.com/?p=145) wrote on April 22, 2008: “we are working hard every day on the next great version of GrandCentral and a ton of cool new features.” However, five months later, we haven’t received any further updates or features.

Obviously, Google wants to limit their liability with certain products. For example, you start using Gmail, like it, and move all your history into it. Then, for some technical reason, half your e-mail disappears. Who do you complain to? Google? They say, “The product is still in BETA. Why on earth would you use a BETA product to store a valuable resource like your e-mail?”

Removing the BETA moniker only increases their liability. I’m not sure what value, if any, they would have for removing BETA from any of their free products.

That is so true about being beta.
You might want to ask guy from http://www.livecrunch.com he use to work for Google. He does not talk about it.

I think BETA is not the best criteria to judge Google’s products.There are several products in the market, for example, “Windows VISTA” which truly deserves BETA status.

No software product/service is finished one.As long as the vendor gives incremental updates it’s in BETA.

It is a great way of preventing law suits for providing bad software, the beta label makes an excellent disclaimer.

Google use of their perpetual beta is nothing more than a cop out so that if something is wrong, they could always say “well it’s not finished yet”. Considering they’re a company with so many software developers, it’s obvious the developers are running that circus.

I’ve been aware of their perpetual beta practice for many years, and have also fell victum to not seeing the beta marks anymore. I didn’t even notice Gmail was still “beta”.

Despite, their abuse of the term reeks of morons running the show afraid to stand behind the products they build.

Crux’s right. Life is a permanent Beta itself and no mainstream software application is a finished product, let alone web applications. It shows how complicated and demanding users are and how the internet has changed the perception about seamless, in the background upgrades.

yes – it seems to be their way of explaining that all of their products are always in development, since they’re the kind of company that enjoys making statements like that.

I would hope that their Google Docs is still in development.

***** NOT A LAWYER HERE ******

I’ve had to deal with EU privacy issues before. From my understanding (again business person but not a lawyer) the privacy restrictions the EU places on companies are more lax on products in beta.

Now I’m not saying I know anything, but if this was true and one wanted to have the easier privacy restrictions it would make sense to keep the product in beta FOREVER.

Since google’s entire model is about knowing more about you than you do. It would at least make some sense they’d want to collect as much data as possible. But this is just one take and I’m sure there are billions of other takes on this.

I would prefer not to see the beta label, only because I believe it unnecessarily dilutes that term. That term has a clear definition in the software release cycle and Google is clearly misusing (abusing?) it.

I’m also not a lawyer, but I don’t see how the simple label of “beta” limits their liability – especially if they’re charging for their products.

Also, aren’t ALL web-based products constantly changing and improving and evolving? Having that label or not doesn’t give you any extra credibility for that. You might as well stick up an “Under Construction” sign in that case. But seriously – they don’t need a beta label to tell their customers that they’re still making changes. They could just as easily remove the label and do what they’ve always been doing with no consequences.

My guess is that this is just an oversight. I don’t think they’ve formalized their product release processes enough to officially denote which products are beta and which products are GA (General Availability). Hopefully this posts raises that issue and they’ll take care of that.

My $0.02 at least.

Some very good points. They could be using the word beta for several reasons.
Beta: To place all liability on the people who use their products
Beta: Sending out a general statement that software is never a final product. We can see this in all software products. Companies releasing many versions of software that improves on the previous versions. So putting it into perspective Adobe Photshop, Microsoft Windows, Corel Draw are all beta products without the beta moniker, because those products are always evolving despite the fact that they are the same product as their previous versions. Really, those companies are just replacing the beta moniker with the “version” moniker.

beta: Trying to grab the hype. There are a lot of people out there that love trying the latest software out there before anyone else for whatever reason. I for instance, here the word beta, or alpha for that matter, and I get this urge to try it.

So, Google could be using the beta moniker on their producst for more than one reason. Perhaps all of the above.

since Google takes users personal data for a ride to display ADs in most of their products .. and they want to escape from any lawsuits .saying its only in beta and its an unfinished product.

Erm, does anybody remember yahoo mail being in beta, and if so, for how long? But the features kept getting added, didn’t they?

Should be a Google style, need to improve overtime

Do we have any good explanation for this?! I can’t believe this. I never realized that gmail was still in beta. I remember when docs was released but I can’t believe that it is still considered beta.

I actually think it’s a good mindset for the developers to have. Like some of the other commenters have said, nothing in life is final – especially not software. And as such, having their products in beta could be a good reminder for the developers that the product has to continue evolving – so that they don’t get stale. It could just be part of the Google culture and mindset of innovation.

Google’s just managing expectations. Keep expectations as low as possible and you’ll never disappoint. At this stage, we all expect only perfection from Google – that’s a lot of pressure!

I second Thierry’s comment. Their products are fully usable yet never totally finished, as they evolve constantly.

Desktop products were more like “we do a beta, then here comes the final release – see you in a couple of months for another beta, of version 2.0 this time”. Because web applications and online services can be updated a lot more easily, it makes sense for them to stay in beta!

Also note that being in beta does not mean low-quality full of bugs here – rather “we deliver early so we can get your feedback and improve the product with it”.

Thanks everyone for all the comments so far! :)

@Derrick: Nothing in life is final, as you say, and as several commenters (like Marisol) have said maybe Google is using this to indicate that their products are in constant development.

BUT… With that reasoning, why then not put the beta label on ALL their products? Their other products are also evolving, even their main Google Search.

Also, most web applications are by their very nature in a constant state of evolution. Versions are less important, because an update to the backend, no matter how small, will “upgrade” all users automatically (one of the main benefits of SaaS). For example, we are adding features to Pingdom basically every month, but we don’t consider the service to be in beta just because we keep working on it.

very good points. yes – we are a beta-society. this label should be stamped on everything: bankproducts, laws, cars, cell-phones, films, music, houses, airplanes, language, on life itself. thank you google to promote this idea.

The word Beta makes it seem cutting edge and new. It is as if to say “we aren’t getting old and set in our ways, we are always making new things!”

it is because google is not confident about these products. And to play safe, so if you lost all yours e-mails you can’t blame then.

Beta really means, the best version is yet to come, I think so.

I’d rather use a beta product from Google than a ‘Gold version’ product from Microsoft any day of the week.

It seems MS and Google have diametrically opposite definitions of Beta.

Google ‘Beta’ – “its good but not perfect, so it remains beta”
MS Beta – “its more bug-ridden than the version we plan to sell in 6 months time”

> Is any other company getting away with this? We don’t know of any.

Of course you do … Micro$oft :-)

hehe in Poland we say “Micro$yf” (microshit). I think Google is the best.

These products are in beta because they are all just gifts to the online consumer — advertising for Google’s only revenue-producing product, keyword search. My advice: don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

“Beta” just mean this (extract from Gmail – Google Terms of Service):

4.2 Google is constantly innovating in order to provide the best possible experience for its users. You acknowledge and agree that the form and nature of the Services which Google provides may change from time to time without prior notice to you.

4.3 As part of this continuing innovation, you acknowledge and agree that Google may stop (permanently or temporarily) providing the Services (or any features within the Services) to you or to users generally at Google’s sole discretion, without prior notice to you. You may stop using the Services at any time. You do not need to specifically inform Google when you stop using the Services.

Use it at your own risk!

really, its an interesting point to debate on with Google(Beta) company.

its now Google beta company.. they are earning like anything even without rolling out final versions of their products… & we are silly followers of Google beta…

wake up now, still there is a scope of improvement

I think I prefer a company that is more “yes we know its not finished, but thanks for pointing out that bug lets fix it” rather than “its done, thats a feature not a bug, GTFO, pay us $100 for subscription and leave us alone”.

It could seem like a joke, or that they don’t have consistancy, but how many open source projects out there haven’t even made it to the big 1.0.. eg, putty, filezilla (this is a big one, they are up to 0.9.29!), mozilla etc.

I think what you were wondering is the whole “paying for a beta product”, but the pun in that says it all. You are paying for a BETTER product. For a company that thinks their product is done, ie says they have moved from beta to 1.0, is never going to be as good as a product produced by a company that understands theír software will NEVER be fully complete.

Anyway, so long as Google continues to work on their products and add new features (StreetView is AMAZINGLY useful), then I really don’t care what they call it, but I can understand some people might dislike the principles its precedently breaking.

I’ve read in the past that a beta gives the US Government the privilege to get access to the user data in the google databases created with the beta applications.