Google drops the beta label, finally

Google (GOOG) announced today that it is dropping the "beta" label on many of its applications. If you have been a long time user of Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs or even Google Talk, you may have been puzzled by why all these applications seem to be, perpetually, in "beta."

Andrew Kovacs, a spokesperson for Google Apps, told DailyFinance that there wasn't any particularly good reason for why its applications carried the "beta" label. "Our standards for what stays in "beta" varies across products," says Kovacs. "We didn't do a good job of carrying those standards across all of our products. Most consumers don't care anyway about the label, so we didn't have any pressure to take it out."

But perhaps users do care. Using software that is still in "beta" leaves you, the consumer, feeling like a pioneer of sorts. You are using software that is cutting edge -- and that's part of the attraction. While you may not be willing to fly on a "beta" airplane, or ward off sickness with a "beta" drug, you are willing to schedule your life on a "beta" version of Google Calendar and communicate via a "beta" version of Gmail.

The term "beta" was not always used to lure risk takers. "Beta," which comes from the second letter of the Greek alphabet, was used to explain that while a software application was being made public to users, it still had to go through testing. There may still be bugs in the software and the developer of the software was counting on feedback from users so that it could fix any malfunctions.

In the 1960s, International Business Machines (IBM) became well know for developing software for mainframe computers that went through two phases of development – alpha and then beta. The "beta" test allowed for invited outsiders to use the software.

Since then, "beta" strategy has been used by many companies. Netscape launched a "beta" version of its Web browser in 1994, drumming up a lot of early interest. ICQ instant messaging launched in "beta" in 1997 and became so popular, America Online bought it a year later.

While Google has used the label for up to five years on its Web-based products, it didn't believe the strategy would work as well for its desktop software. Products such as Google Desktop Search carried the "beta" label for only two months.

So why drop the label on Web-based products now? Even though Google has signed on more than 1.75 million companies which run their businesses on Google Apps, most of those are small and medium-sized businesses. Now, Google wants large, multinationals using Google Apps.

"We realized that the blockers to adoption of Google Apps among large businesses were the ability for it to interoperate with Microsoft (MSFT) Outlook, BlackBerry smartphones, and for Gmail to work offline," explains Google's Kovacs. "Another blocker was the "beta" tag. Some large companies just were not comfortable deploying their software on Google Apps with a beta tag."

It seems the move is working. Today, Google announced that South Portland, Maine-based Fairchild Semiconductor (FCS) has moved 5,500 employees from IBM's Lotus Notes to Google Apps Premier Edition.

But if you are upset that the "beta" label is disappearing on these products, Google has created a fix. You can re-enable the "beta" label for Gmail by clicking on the Labs tab under Settings.

Somehow, I doubt "beta" is gone for good at Google. The company has been talking about a new app, called Google Wave, which is supposed to let you use your iPhone and Android-based smartphones to text in real time. While it probably won't come out for another year or so, I wouldn't be surprised if the first version released is in "beta."

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