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:
- Google Docs
- 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.