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When beta doesn't mean beta

Software betas were once treated as unfinished products that needed to be used in test situations, but now they're marketed as ready for technical prime time, which can cause big problems in your operations.

The line between beta software and the final product is getting fuzzier all the time.

Up until several years ago, a beta software product was just that, a software version that users tested -- many times in a limited way. After they tested it, users told the manufacturer what worked and what didn't.

Although it's doubtful that any IT shop would run a beta version of an operating system in a production environment, some do use various software tools, open source technology and online services as if they had already gone gold. Depending on the situation, it may not be such a great idea.

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In the past, users were chosen on their technical savvy and ability to accurately report what they experienced. IT shops in major corporations were often called upon to test new products. Then software companies began marketing betas as near-release products and greatly expanded the beta pool by providing publicly available downloads. Now the meaning of the word "beta" has changed and so has the expectation for what is defined as beta quality.

One example of this collision of beta definitions was displayed in an online patching forum when one IT person reported problems after installing Microsoft's beta WSUS 3.0, a free patch updating tool, on all of the company's servers. He said that he may have jumped the gun, and forum participants quickly rushed to remind the administrator that he was dealing with beta code and not a finished piece of software.

When users complain that their beta software causes unexpected problems in production, experienced technology folks use it as an opportunity to tell others that this isn't good practice for computer networks. "First of all, it's a beta. Second of all, it's a beta and you don't go rolling it out into a production environment," said Susan Bradley, a partner with Tamiyasu, Smith, Horn and Braun Accountancy Corp. in Fresno, Calif. Bradley often reminds posters on patching lists that a beta version means that all of the glitches haven't been worked out yet.

For some people, beta has to come mean the latest version of software but not necessarily one that will be problematic in network operations.

Gary Barnett, research director at Ovum, a London-based consulting firm , said he thinks perceptions about betas started to shift around 2000, as more programs -- particularly online video games -- used the term as a marketing tool.

Everyone wanted to be a part of the hip new world of Web 2.0, he said. Web 2.0 is a popular term for advanced Internet applications and technology, such as wikis, blogs and social bookmarking.

"You're considered a stick in the mud if you're not interested or involved with those technologies," Barnett said. "Meanwhile, back in the real world, clients have to be absolutely sure that the applications and technology they're using are going to interact properly, that it's reliable and it won't change overnight, causing outages," he said.

People should go back to the mindset they had when they equated beta software with experimental software, Barnett said. "Would you drive your family over a beta, or experimental, bridge?" he said. "Or if you were lying on the surgery table and your doctor told you there was a cool, new beta heart probe, would you want him to use it?"

Fred Dunn, an IT administrator at a large, Texas university, said testing a beta before using it in a wider setting is important, Dunn said. "More people are actually using them in a production environment, and I don't agree with that," he said. But there are some cases where beta software isn't too much cause for concern. Some IT managers don't hesitate to use some pre-release software in a production environment, particularly open source software as it tends to be more stable.

"We use Exodus [Jabber client], which runs on a Wildfire [server]," said Joseph Foran, IT director at FSW, a Bridgeport, Conn.-based social services agency. "It's pre-1.0 and still in development, but it works well. Maybe it has a few glitches."

Foran also runs Fedora Core, an open source desktop, in production. But Foran's willingness to allow beta software into mainstream use doesn't extend to everything.

"I would never put Vista or Longhorn into production until it's good and ready," he said. "And that's after Service Pack 1."

Ovum's Barnett said much of the newly developed software these days, particularly online, is innovative and has their part to play, just not as betas for business clients. "There's some incredibly powerful medicine out there, but, in some cases, people don't have the right qualifications to apply that medicine appropriately," Barnett said.

Margie Semilof contributed to this report.

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