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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger




The Sad Joke Of Public Betas
October 4th, 2000

This week's exercise will be to put you in the writer's mind to understand how I (and some others) have a gut reaction of hate toward beta software that reaches the hands of the public.

Instead of the knee-jerk reaction witnessed everywhere about the price of Mac OS X beta, I want to tackle a much deeper issue, one that I think is much more important. After all, paying for beta software is a personal choice. If you want to pay for it, do so. If you don't want to, then do not! Do we have to transform basic choices of consuming into acts of punditry? Come on!

Public betas force writers and evaluators to walk a very thin line. There are reasons why beta software is already hard to evaluate and to depict, not to mention the issues surrounding potentially facing hundreds or thousands of users who have their own conceptions and misconceptions on what the unofficial release is supposed to be like.

At first, let us go through what I consider to be the biggest hurdles. These are the most annoying ones since they simultaneously allow companies to have their way and people to question your judgment without reservation.

  • People will tell you that you do not know your stuff if you complain about anything related to usability since anything can be said of performance in a beta release.
  • You cannot report any problem whatsoever since as this is a beta, people expect problems but will push this expectation to the limit to say that ANY problem is excusable because it is beta. As if by magic, nothing imperfect - even badly implemented features - would remain unfixed in the final version.

Then, it continues with personal matters, or in outright wording, insults from fanatics. If people love a product as obsessively as they love the Macintosh, you are in for trouble at the first trace of criticism. No matter what you say, valid or not, based on expertise and cold sound judgment or not, it does not matter. You dared to step on sacred territory and your credibility will suffer for it.

Just as criticizing Apple or the Mac will offend fanatics, criticizing the beta version of somebody's favorite software is nothing less than a sin. How dare you! You are in for a spanking.

The worst case is if you give an honest viewpoint and that it reaches the eyes of somebody who sees himself as a pundit. Then, you will receive your share of flames from someone who may not even possess the knowledge required to knock you around on technicalities. However, the person does sound knowledgeable, so you feel like crap and go back home with your tail between your legs.

As if this was not enough, you also place your integrity on the line if you tackle software that requires more knowledge than you have. The hottest beta in town, Mac OS X, is a good example. Judging a whole operating system, where API's, kernels and other elements such as debugging are at stake, is a giant task.

Even a techie or more modest power user might break a leg. That is exactly what happened to Jon Bonner at MacSoldiers. He went ahead with a column describing how Mac OS X beta feels sluggish on his iMac, but the reactions from readers were not slow at all. Name calling and "shoddy journalism" accusations were among the criticisms. To top it off, AppleSurf said that Jon did not do his homework.

At best, Jon faced an angry mob that did not want him to give a negative spin to their beloved operating system of the future, even if based on a true experience. At worst, he tried to undertake a most difficult task that is beyond most people's ability.

I do not doubt Jon's professionalism when evaluating software. I have read his past reviews and he produces decent material, but as I described above, he stepped in the kind of minefield where no writer should adventure.

So, if we cannot look at beta software with anything but positive comments, what should we do to avoid whining? Kiss butt. Describe the new features; tell folks how the changes, redesigns and implementations will astound them; show how this makes their lives easier or saves time.

Since describing problematic experiences puts your credibility on the line, do you have other options? The very fact that the software is beta takes your independence away from you. If you deviate from the party line, you are an unprofessional reporter and bad evaluator. Just like in politics, what you will say afterwards, right or wrong, will have no effect. Once a villain, a villain forever...

This sounds funny to me since from my experience, betas and previews become more stable with the final release. They are usually faster with fully activated new features, but they remain imperfect. This leaves room for healthy criticism.

For these reasons, I think that beta software is a royal waste of time for any writer, even one with the best reviewing skills.

The exercise serves the companies very well and I cannot blame them for releasing public betas. They get massive help to find bugs and all-positive previews while at it! This is what they want and they know how to get it.

I wish that we, writers, did not fall for it. This whole thing is not worth putting your credibility under fire because it happens for the wrong reasons. If you cannot use a critical eye without taking heat for it, why should you ever bother with the software at all?

This is why I will not - and why others should not - go through the hassle of reporting anything about Mac OS X beta or any other beta software. It is not as if I would have the right to do so with that restrictive license agreement. Nothing indicates that I bought it or have any plans to have it one day :-)

I wanted you to place yourself in the mind of a writer for a moment to understand the issue. Now you know. Sort of.

Your comments are welcomed.

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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