Over the course of last two weeks I've been filling requests left and right for various Microsoft beta projects from Vista to Messenger and back to Mail. Tonight I got a rather paranoid email, essentially, asking why is it so hard to get on the beta and why is Microsoft (or Google, or Yahoo or…) so tight-fisted when it comes to software. Here are three categories that should explain what goes on in the beta process: Who is going to sue us? First question in the mind of a project manager is who is our competition? This is initially a SWOT (Strenghts, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis that evolves into a paranoid guess work of who may be developing the same feature set you are. It goes through the concept, development, analysis and then through legal which makes a decision on whether this is going to get the company sued for developing a feature. BETA Answer: Let's formally announce our goal, our implementation and see what happens. Can this project scale? No matter the company or project scale there are always two finite resources: headcount (cash) and computer power (more cash). There is a really interesting phase of horrible project management that happens right after the concept becomes approved and funded, which is caused by two actions going in opposite directions. You have to prove that the concept is viable and you have to make it happen by the deadline. More often than not those two are mutually exclusive (also known as: every software product ever written). BETA Answer: Let's open up the project as an invitation-only beta. This will give us the ability to scale the project at the pace we define and can reasonably support without setting expectations too high. Oh lord, thank you for not owning us… yet. Finally, the concept of security by obscurity. Spaghetti code's natural predator is the unlimited customer base anxious to play with every feature in a way that the developers never could forsee on the project flowchart. Now should a company release and collect payment for such a product there would be lawsuits, questions to answer, etc. Instead the company gets a ton of bug fixes, feature suggestions and input from the user that feels they are helping instead of complaining about their buyers remorse. BETA Answer: Let's close the project and encourage positive feedback by humbly giving away beta hats to our beta testers. Is this why all my software sucks? No, not all software is inherently flawed from the get-go. However, we write software to solve immediate problems. Beta processes allow for immediate market feedback, for an ongoing PR through multiple sources that are reasonably educated about what they are looking at, not just rearranging the Associated Press wire feed. On a higher level it gives consumers (partners, customers, developers) a sense of ownership knowing that they have participated in the product development since inception. Lots of text for a Wednesday morning? You bet. Think about something you're scratching your head about and find a solution for it.
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