The Curse of Beta Hardware
Once upon a time, everybody agreed that the fact a product was in beta testing meant that it wasn't yet ready for prime time. When I started writing about technology back in the early 1990s, prerelease versions of applications never got anything approaching mass distribution; I remember acquiring a beta copy of Windows 95, as a member of the press, and feeling extraordinarily privileged.
But times changed -- and so did the role of betas. The Internet made distributing prerelease software cheap and easy, so many companies began releasing applications widely. Today, if you're curious about an upcoming version of a program, there's a very good chance you'll be able to download a beta and try it for free. (With stuff like Web browsers, life without widespread betas is nearly unimaginable.)
Another shift in the meaning of "beta" happened when Google began labeling most of its major products as betas, and retaining that disclaimer indefinitely. The company has since revised its policy -- probably to calm down business users who are cautious about using unfinished products for real work -- but this practice was widely imitated. Beta may have once meant "This product is too raw for public consumption," but the definition had morphed into something closer to "This product is really cool, and you should be among the first to try it."
So far, so good. Consumers and businesses get to try products early; developers get valuable input while there's still time to squash bugs and tweak features. Everybody's happy.
Lately, though, I've detected a new beta twist I'm not happy about: Hardware manufacturers are treating their products like betas. Except they're not distributing free works-in-progress for input from testers -- they're just shipping products they know aren't really finished.
I've noticed more and more evidence of this as I review products for Technologizer. Evaluating products will always reveal quirks and bugs -- that's part of why we evaluate them, and why people read evaluations before buying. In the old days, finding problems with new hardware usually took at least a little effort. But today, it sometimes feels like I'm being pelted in the face with glitches the instant I open the box.
That was certainly true with Logitech's Revue, an Internet-TV box based on Google's new Google TV platform. When I tried it, I got a cryptic error message almost the moment I'd finished setting it up...and things sort of went downhill from there. Features failed to work. Links to TV content led to dead ends. Design decisions left me dumbstruck.
When I ran the issues I was having by folks at Logitech and Google, they weren't surprised by some of them. Others were apparently news -- even ones with core Google TV features. In both cases, many of the people who pay for the first Google TV devices will encounter the same weirdness I did. And if the problems get fixed, it'll be in software updates and on-the-fly refinements to Web services that Google might have been able to implement before it shipped Google TV.
Of course, if Google had taken the time to make Google TV perfect -- or at least less profoundly imperfect -- it might have missed its deadlines and prevented Logitech and Sony from selling devices in time for the holiday 2010 season. That fact surely led to Google shipping what it had ready even though it was a rough draft.
So did another fact about modern hardware: It's actually mostly software. If Sony had shipped flaky VCRs twenty or thirty years ago, it couldn't have done anything about them without taking them back, opening them up, and futzing with their innards. But in 2010, much of the features in everything from Internet TV boxes to smartphones to printers are implemented in firmware."We'll fix it later" has become a viable business strategy, or at least one which many companies adopt.
And sometimes "later" comes really quickly: Boxee rolled out a firmware upgrade for D-Link's Boxee Box, just a few days after the box shipped. Oftentimes, updates await when you set up a brand-new product: Companies are clearly finishing up work after products have been manufactured but before they've arrived at retail stores.
Only one thing makes any of this a problem: Real people are paying full price for an incomplete experience. The technology industry has a history of willfully gouging early adopters -- remember the original, short-lived $599 iPhone? Maybe it's time that it consider treating the first people who buy new hardware as beta testers who deserve to get a healthy discount for their trouble.
[NOTE: This story is from last week's Technologizer's T-Week newsletter -- go here to sign up to receive it each Friday.]