Friday, August 25, 2006

Straight Into Beta

Has the concept of “being in beta” now come to mean something else?
I have been a Blogger user for a little more than two years. As a web application it is somewhat clunky and rough around the edges, but it gets the job done. Being the type of person who enjoys playing around with the template of my blog and the structure of my posts, I am delighted that the application is now getting an upgrade. I am looking forward to migrating Thoughtport onto the new Blogger platform and using the new enhanced tool-set. However, putting my branding hat on here, I have reservations with the name chosen for this upgrade: ‘Blogger In Beta’.

Blogger was already well established as the most adopted blogging platform when I started ThoughtPort in 2004. For this next stage of its evolution to be labeled as beta seems oxymoronic. This seems to imply that we have all merely been using an alpha version up until now.

The advantage of web applications to me, the user, is that my upgrade cycle is continuous and unobtrusive. From a user perspective the ideal upgrade path should be seamless. I do not have to go out and get the latest version of Gmail and install it on my MacBook, instead I can just use the latest features as they are activated behind the scenes.

In practice, many Web 2.0 applications are using the word beta defensively. Their thinking appears to be that, by including the word somewhere on their home page, they are indemnifying themselves from any bad service experience their users may have. Big mistake. Once your service is live online and customers are using it, then you are moving out of beta. Of course, you have to refine and develop based on ongoing user-feedback internal innovation, but that is now a hygiene factor not a competitive advantage. (Technically, you could argue that all web services following this model are perpetually in beta. But that is merely the trivial definition, which also makes the prominent display of a beta tag equally redundant.)

Flickr kept a small grey beta tagline beside its brand mark for so long that it just became embarrassing. So much so that their (smart) response was to parody themselves with the new ‘Gamma’ tagline that they added with this year’s upgrade.

My intuition is that this unobtrusive, gradual, on-going accretion of features causes headaches to any traditionally-minded marketers who may be working within these organisations. They crave the large event, the splash of novelty, the hook big enough to hang a launch campaign upon. Why not wait, they may think, roll a suite of new features together and then launch them simultaneously to create some momentum and some buzz. Then name it (with a slightly tweaked or radically different name), to reinforce how different this new experience is to what has come before. This is not the approach I would take, but I suspect may be the road travelled in this case. “Well it is new and there are some aspects we cannot't truly test until we put a heavy user-load on them, so lets call it Beta: ‘Blogger in Beta’.”

I can see the dilemma they face. Discrete ongoing evolution is great for your existing user base, but not so helpful when you are trying to define your competitive advantage against your competitors.

On the basis of the business decision above, what might be the optimal naming strategy to pursue? Okay, so I would certainly not co-opt the nomenclature of the software-in-a-box model: Blogger 3.0, Blogger 4.0, which just perpetuates the older paradigm. (Although, the major July upgrade of Digg is informally referred to as Digg 3.0, but that seems to be an internal project title which has been co-opted as a conversational convention amongst Digg users, and does not appear to be a marketing construct.) A more valid approach is to completely eschew the whole concept of their being a version at all, as practised at Squidoo, Gmail, Google Calendar to name a few of the relevant sites. There surely are other variants which will need some further consideration and thought.

Addendum: I wrote this post before I migrated Thoughtport over to the new platform. On doing so, I now see that they are having to run both the original Blogger and the new ‘Blogger in Beta’ applications in parallel for a transitional period. With two different base URLs. This gives a valid technical basis for the name change. However I think the branding and naming issues addressed above are still relevant and worth discussing.