Are Beta Programs Worth The Effort?

Where’s The Beef?

We all know that IT departments are stretched thin these days, so why commit your teams’ valuable time to a beta program?

“Beta programs are frequently undertaken to fill a need where no (released) software currently exists,” said Ray Hamann, manager of Web Services & Application Development at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We are making an investment in the product’s viability and potential.”

From a software vendor’s perspective the benefits include feature suggestions and real-world debugging, said Marc Rubin, chief operating officer of xlipstream, a provider of XML Appliances. This is especially true for small startup vendors.

“A beta program lets you get your future product out of the lab and into a real world environment,” said Rubin. “You hold your breath and then feel the relief when the product does what you say it will do.”

Notice the emphasis on “real-world?” No matter how much the target market is researched or how much internal testing is done, there is absolutely nothing like a warm-blooded customer playing with a product to highlight how stable, useful and most important, “sellable” it is.

Extended Engagement

If you are considering participating in a beta, it is important to carefully consider the vendor’s expectations which are usually outlined in the beta agreement. Understand the time commitment required, including completing formal test plans and providing written feedback. You may also be asked to participate in weekly conference calls to review bugs and your feature requests.

Be very careful not to overburden resources involved in mission critical projects or production support. In addition, expect to test every inch of the product, not just your areas of interest, said Hopkins’ Hamann.

“Beta testers must be prepared for involvement in the testing process beyond the functionality they may have specific need for,” he said. Hamman also stresses testers weigh the impact staging or testing environments will have on their existing operations.

When it comes down to it, though, there is one word that reflects the top dog benefit: discount. Since the vendor benefits the most in these beta relationships, therefore the customer has a right to expect a pricing break if the product is purchased at the end of the program. When negotiating a beta agreement be sure to play the “free testing” trump card and the promise of a glowing case study — assuming the product delivers glowing results, of course.

Just keep that discount in mind if you happen into an unexpected downpour and you regretfully remember the windshield wipers aren’t scheduled to work until the general availability release.