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Every once in a while, you’ll hear people talking about “beta releases”, “beta versions”, and “beta software”. Up until about five to ten years ago, beta releases weren’t as common as they are today. Nowadays, you can find beta releases all over the place: operating systems, video games, web apps, music players, etc. But what does it mean for a project to be in beta and should you care?

Long story short, the term “beta” refers to a product’s stage of development. I like to compare it to the life cycle of insects, which typically goes through multiple phases: eggs, larva, pupa, and adult. As products develop, they go through a similar cycle: pre-alpha, alpha, beta, and release candidate. Usage of the “alpha/beta” labeling can be traced back to IBM as early as the 1950s.

You may have heard about the software development cycle before, but let’s delve a little deeper into what these terms mean and what you can hope to expect from a product in each of these phases.

The Pre-Alpha Phase

software-phase-prealpha

The pre-alpha phase is the portion of development that occurs before the first round of testing. Of course, a properly managed project will constantly be testing products in an iterative manner, so I suppose it’s more accurate to say that the pre-alpha phase refers to everything that happens before official testing begins.

This phase encapsulates many different activities: market research, data collection, requirements analysis and documentation, software design, and software engineering. For most of you, that’s probably a load of mumbo-jumbo, but hopefully it gives you an idea of how much work is involved even before a product begins development. As you might imagine, the pre-alpha phase can last a long time.

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What to expect from pre-alpha software: If a company or developer decides to release pre-alpha software to the public, you should drop your expectations all the way down to zero. Minecraft, a creative block-building sandbox game A Latecomer’s Introduction To Minecraft [MUO Gaming] A Latecomer’s Introduction To Minecraft [MUO Gaming] Minecraft, the block-based sensation that took gaming by storm, is now well over three years old. It’s almost hard to believe it’s been that long since the first alpha was posted – and it’s equally... Read More , released pre-alpha versions called “Indev” that were buggy, lacking in features, and prone to crashing. Public pre-alpha releases, which are extremely rare to begin with, are mostly for marketing and hype, though sometimes a developer will release them for no other reason than “just because.”

The Alpha Phase

software-phase-alpha

The alpha phase begins when a product has been developed enough to require an official round of testing. Because of this, you’ll most commonly hear it referred to as “alpha testing phase” which derives from the first Greek letter alpha. Hence, first testing phase. Makes sense, right?

For the most part, alpha testing is meant to test a product for core functionality. It makes sure that the most basic functions are operating as intended. It’s not a comprehensive testing phase – there’s no focus on polish during an alpha test nor is there much consideration for edge cases. As long as the program does the bare minimum, it passes.

Since alpha testing isn’t comprehensive, testing is mostly done in-house. In other words, the people working on alpha tests are likely those who are already involved in the project in some way.

What to expect from alpha software: Like pre-alpha software, you should expect a ton of bugs and crash issues, but the feature set should be large enough to indicate what the final product might look like. Alpha software tends to be functional but ugly as most resources have been dedicated to production, not refinement.

The Beta Phase

software-phase-beta

Now we get to the beta testing phase, which is the most prolific type of non-release software out there. You might be able to surmise by now that a product enters beta testing when all of the core functionality has been implemented and it passes alpha testing standards. Beta is the second letter of the Greek alphabet.

Fun fact: alpha beta is where we get the word alphabet!

The beta phase begins when a product propels from “functional but hideous” to “polished and ready to go.” Bugs are hunted down and fixed, features are improved or revamped for maximum usability, the interface and graphics receive an overhaul, and performance issues are optimized. Even though beta testing occurs as the third step in development, it can often be the longest phase because there are so many aspects to test.

The beta phase is typically initiated when a developer opens up a product to those who haven’t been involved in development. A closed beta is a limited release where only those who have been given access can test the software while an open beta or public beta is a free (as in liberty) release that allows anyone to download and try it out.

What to expect from beta software: You should expect a beta product to be “feature complete,” meaning that everything that’s intended to be in the final product has been implemented. You may experience major and minor bugs that break certain portions of the product, but rarely will you find critical bugs that require immediate attention. Beta software can go through a lot of changes, so expect frequent patches and updates.

The Release Candidate Phase

software-phase-release

As the name implies, a release candidate is the last step in the development cycle before actually releasing a product as finished. Sometimes the term can apply to a particular patch or update to an existing product. In essence, the release candidate is a version that’s almost complete but requires a tiny bit more testing to quash final bugs and issues.

What to expect from release candidate software: Most developers skip over the release candidate step, so if you do come across software that’s in the release candidate phase, you can expect it to be pretty good. Most of the time, the label is just there as a disclaimer that you may run into one or two major-but-rare bug, but my experience tells me that release candidates are candidates for release for a reason – they’re pretty much final.

Conclusion

Now that you’re a little more knowledgeable on the phases of the software development cycle, you’ll recognize those applications with funky labels like “alpha” and “beta”. For the most part, open source software What Is Open Source Software? [MakeUseOf Explains] What Is Open Source Software? [MakeUseOf Explains] "Open source" is a term that’s thrown around a lot these days. You may know that certain things are open source, like Linux and Android, but do you know what it entails? What is open... Read More is more likely to go through public versions of alphas and betas. Private companies, like Microsoft, tend to perform all of their testing in-house and then release finished products.

Interested in being a beta tester? There are services out there, such as OnlineBeta, which exist to grant you the chance to test beta products OnlineBeta: Get A Chance To Test Beta Products OnlineBeta: Get A Chance To Test Beta Products Read More . Otherwise, I hope this overview helped. If you have any related questions, please feel free to ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.

  1. vickie
    June 7, 2016 at 9:19 pm

    so on sling tv it offers 2 optios and 1 is beta with more channels. I have a hd tv which I use xbox 360 to watch netflix and other tv shows, would beta be better, we have a lot of interuptions and reloads during the episode. Im not tech stuff savvy.

  2. pratibha
    May 20, 2016 at 12:21 pm

    AWESOME answer...most useful thanks

    • Joel Lee
      May 23, 2016 at 3:40 am

      No problem. Glad I could be of help, pratibha!

  3. Benny
    March 31, 2016 at 1:35 pm

    Beautifly explained.... great job

    • Joel Lee
      May 23, 2016 at 3:40 am

      Thanks Benny, I'm glad it was helpful!

  4. Debopriya Das
    March 27, 2016 at 10:05 am

    Very helpful and concise.
    Thank you!

    • Joel Lee
      April 1, 2016 at 1:27 am

      You're welcome. Glad it helped! :)

  5. Jonn Jasper Ejoc
    March 2, 2016 at 1:26 pm

    Very Helpful, good job on writing this Article, keep up the goodwork.

    • Joel Lee
      March 14, 2016 at 8:10 pm

      Thank you Jonn, I appreciate that. :)

  6. Predrag
    February 12, 2016 at 3:20 pm

    After long time I read article from someone who want to explain something and not just to look smart, thanks for this lesson it's good to know those things.
    Regards

    • Joel Lee
      February 18, 2016 at 4:22 am

      Thanks Predrag! And you're welcome. Glad it was helpful for you. :)

  7. Rico
    December 29, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    I found my self smiling, I just realized that the name alphabet came from Greek Alpha and Beta.. simple article but very informative! Thanks!

  8. Somya
    November 22, 2015 at 8:12 pm

    Joel L, that was one of the best articles I've ever read! It is just fantastic! Brilliant, I must say! I am about to finish middle school right now, and you just gave me all the basic principles about alphas and betas. That was what I wanted. Your article was simple, precise, on-point, and stipulated, with some humour as well...
    Just loved it! Keep up the good work and stay blessed!

    • Joel Lee
      November 25, 2015 at 3:04 am

      Thank you for the kind words, Somya! I appreciate it. Glad you found it helpful. :)

  9. Waleed M. Ismail
    September 26, 2015 at 12:37 am

    I want to Thank you for this amazing article, this has helped me a lot.

    • Joel Lee
      September 26, 2015 at 7:15 pm

      You're welcome Waleed! I'm glad it was helpful for you. :)

  10. odile
    May 5, 2015 at 8:22 pm

    thank you ! very helpful

  11. Wayne Hadaway
    March 5, 2014 at 2:54 pm

    Thanks for enlightening me on the alpha, beta development phase of software. I am a late starter in the use of the computer and intend to continue and with Guys like you who make such an invaluable contribution to novices like me, how can I fail. Thanks again and God Bless. Keep up the good work.

  12. Arron W
    October 6, 2013 at 7:02 am

    It's worth noting that a lot of this can no longer apply PC gaming. We're getting a lot more Beta's than we ever have before, the "Minecraft" era has begun. While MC followed this for the most part, Beta dragged on a very long time, as more and more features were added - and then when 'finished', constant updates are still happening... and that's really the crux of it, rather than sequels, many games are delivering updates - and thus, we're essentially still in beta.

    • Joel L
      October 8, 2013 at 2:30 am

      You're right, but it only really seems to be the case for online gaming. Beta releases seem to be more of a publicity stunt than actual beta testing, whereas console games and single player PC games still go through the traditional stages of the software development cycle. For MMORPGs, "beta" may as well mean "release" these days...

  13. Vladi T
    October 5, 2013 at 8:33 am

    Nice article, helpful fun fact as well.

  14. Kalpesh Panchal
    October 4, 2013 at 6:21 am

    Thanks Joel, You quite simply explained it all.
    After the RC comes the stable release.

    • Joel L
      October 8, 2013 at 2:28 am

      Glad it helped! Yes, there really isn't anything after RC except Release itself. :)

  15. Stephan H
    October 3, 2013 at 9:45 pm

    The beta phase begins when a product propels from “functional but hideous” to “polished and ready to go.”

    Judging by these standards, most Linux-software is still not even in beta phase.

    I've been using Mac OS 9/OS X for years before I switched to Ubuntu and I was very, very disappointed (not to say horrified) by the lack of user-friendliness (and the amount of ugliness) of many Linux-apps. There seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel meanwhile with at least a few apps trying to look beautiful and usable for non-geeks, but based on my personal experience, most of the "beta-releases" on the Mac were still far more polished and usable than many, many Linux-apps that supposedly had been in development for years.

    • Joel L
      October 4, 2013 at 2:25 am

      That's likely because the Mac tends to draw in creators who are more oriented towards graphics and visuals, while Linux tends to draw in those who tend to elevate functionality and power over aesthetics. But by "polished and ready to go," I meant both in terms of features and aesthetics, so I think everyone should be a bit more reserved before labelling something as "Beta".

  16. Madge Villegas
    October 3, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    I usually never have problems with Beta versions, but the latest beta of Oracle VM VirtualBox is giving me problems.

  17. Tom W
    October 3, 2013 at 6:51 pm

    This is an excellent breakdown of the development process. I think there's a few developers who would do well to read this, as there's a lot of variation in the quality of software that get given the above labels. I think I read somewhere that Notch has decided not to use alpha and beta labels because it's not always clear to users what that means.

    • Joel L
      October 4, 2013 at 2:23 am

      Thanks! I agree that developers should better label their public releases. It's not an exact science, of course, but it's disheartening when a Release Candidate is so buggy that it might as well be Alpha. Bah!

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