The Big Problem with Public Betas: App Store Reviews

Beta software by its nature isn't ready for prime time. There are bugs, incomplete or missing features, the possibility of data loss, and in the case of iOS9 that also means some third-party apps break. Developers can fix that problem; what they can't fix are the entirely inappropriate negative reviews iOS 9 public beta users post to the App Store.

iOS 9 public beta's big headache: bad App Store reviewsiOS 9 public beta's big headache: bad App Store reviews

The problem isn't new, although it's happening more now than it used to: Non-developers install a beta version of iOS on their iPhone or iPad, and when apps stop working they post a negative review on the App Store. The issue used to be limited to people who managed to find a way to get the betas even though they were supposed to be only open to registered developers. Now that most anyone can get at the iOS 9 public beta the problem has the potential to be much larger and more damaging to app makers.

The scenario plays out with someone finding an app they rely on becomes unstable or won't even launch, so off to the App Store they go to post a one-star rating. They leave a comment about how lame it is that the app doesn't work with the beta operating system.

For developers, this is a two fold problem. First, they're faced with users who don't understand what beta means. Second, they can't release iOS 9 compatibility updates yet. If Apple follows its usual timeline, app compatibility updates can't get uploaded to the App Store until about a couple weeks ahead of the official iOS 9 launch. In other words, apps that are broken in iOS 9 will stay that way for now, and there won't be any updates to address those issues for several more weeks.

Public beta testers need to keep in mind that "beta" means "not ready for daily use," and they shouldn't install iOS 9 on mission-critical devices. My iPhone, for example, never runs beta OS versions because I rely on it daily. I can't afford to have broken apps or missing features.

Our perception of "beta" has changed over time thanks in part to companies like Google that give us apps with the beta moniker attached. Google Mail, for example, was called beta for years even though we were all using it every day. End users have come to think of beta as "the free version I get to use for a while," and they expect beta apps and operating systems to be fully operational and bug-free.

Here's beta etiquette list:

  • Never install beta operating systems on devices you can't afford to wipe and start over if something goes wrong.
  • Always back up the data on your beta devices.
  • Assume you'll lose all the data on your beta test devices.
  • If an app breaks, tell the developer. Don't post a negative App Store review.

App developers are hard at work getting their products ready to go for this fall's iOS 9 release. The help you give them through positive feedback will go much farther than a one star App Store review, and can help make their apps better for everyone.

Constructive feedback for developers and Apple is part of being in the beta testing community. One star App Store reviews for beta issues don't help anyone, and if you think that's the best avenue for feedback think twice about participating. Beta testing is about finding and fixing problems, not making them.