How IBM and Google Shaped the Term “Beta”

At Centercode we use the term “beta” countless times every day. We realized that even though we use it so much, we’d never taken a moment to step back and consider where it came from. So we thought it would be nice to take a moment to look at how the term beta has developed into what it is today.

So, what is beta? While “beta” may have started as the second letter of the Greek alphabet, at some point the technology sector adopted the term for its own. In today’s world, we techies define beta as the process of subjecting a product to testing by real customers in their real environments prior to its release. So at what point did beta take on this additional meaning, and why was “beta” chosen instead of one of the other various letters in the Greek alphabet?

IBM and the Birth of Beta

The first uses of the term beta can be traced back to IBM in the 1950s. According to Allan Scherr (a former IBM employee), the terminology originated during his time there. They referred to testing product ideas and theories as “A” testing and testing feature complete products as “B” testing. Over time, the “A” and “B” became “alpha” and “beta”, creating the terminology that we commonly use to this day. Since IBM was the gold standard at the time for business processes, more and more companies started to catch on to the idea of A and B testing, and thus, alpha and beta testing were born.

Google Takes Beta Public

Originally, betas were solely considered a step of the development process. The focus was on finding and fixing bugs and critical issues before launch. However, as time went on, companies started to find ways to use betas for more than just improving the quality of their product. Google led the way in this next step of beta’s evolution. When Google initially launched Gmail in April 2004, they launched with a “beta” tag and an innovative invitation-only sign up strategy. Gmail allowed anyone to try out their “beta” product, but only if they knew someone who was already in, creating buzz, increasing publicity, and building a competitive environment around becoming a user of the new tool. This was an extremely unique approach that had not been tried before.

Gmail remained in this form until February of 2007, at which point it opened up to the public. In theory, this would have been an appropriate time to remove the “beta” sticker next to the Gmail logo, but Google decided to keep Gmail (as well as the rest of Google Apps) in beta until July of 2009. Exposing beta to the public in this way helped beta transform from an internal techie term to more of a commonly known one. Having a company as large and impactful as Google advertise beta to millions of users raised a lot of awareness, ultimately ushering in an era of widened interest in beta and new products.

The Gaming Industry Makes Beta Fun

Now using betas to build buzz is fairly common in the tech world, especially in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). While these games tend to run betas with large amounts of users primarily to stress test their servers, letting thousands of excited testers get a glimpse of the game before it’s released generates huge amounts of hype. This has become such a popular approach that it’s rare for a popular game to launch without some buzz and speculation about its beta test beforehand.

Guild Wars 2 is a great illustration of how these tech companies are leveraging the new world of beta. Launch days have become a big deal (especially in the gaming industry) and can account for a large portion of sales. Guild Wars 2 used a combination of stress tests and beta weekend events to give their most enthusiastic fans early access to the game, while building publicity and interest in the gaming community. If you pre-purchased a copy of Guild Wars 2, you were given access to the pre-release tests (which normally only lasted a few hours).

This allowed the Guild Wars 2 team to accomplish a couple different things: they gathered crucial info about the condition of their servers; they encouraged people to purchase the game before it was even out; and they built interest in the gaming community as a whole. These beta strategies and the fundamental role they now play in ensuring both the quality of the product and the ultimate success of the product launch shows how what used to be a purely technical exercise has become a massive marketing mechanism, far beyond what the first teams at IBM ever dreamed.

The Future of Beta

As a whole, beta is continuing to grow in both effectiveness and popularity. The word “beta” is increasingly becoming a household term as more and more companies expand and publicize their beta programs. As it’s developed over the years, it has been exciting to watch beta take on an expanded role in the development world. With things like agile development, social media, and gamification shaping how tech companies develop their products and connect with their customers, there’s potential for beta to become even more important. Who knows where beta will take us next, but we’re certainly excited to be playing a role in the evolution of beta as companies find new and interesting ways to make use of everything it has to offer!

Visit our library for more information on beta!

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