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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
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.
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, 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
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
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
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.
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 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. 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.