|The OS/2 Debate
|- by Chris Wright and Dr. Dirk Terrell
With the advent of electronic distribution, modern software developers have recently taken a new approach to software development and sales. Many companies now offer potential customers the chance to participate in alpha and beta test programs -- for a modest fee. Typically this allows users to shape the final product and, in some cases, to receive a discounted or even free version of the finished product for their efforts.
This month, Chris Wright and Dr. Dirk Terrell discuss the pros and cons of this practice and how it affects the OS/2 market.
Chris: Charging users for beta test programs can be a positive thing -- if done right.
Unfortunately, free beta tests can become a logistical nightmare for the developer. If the beta is free and popular, suddenly beta testing has turned into technical support, and you're spending more time responding to well meaning beta testers and less time actually fixing bugs.
Charging beta testers, while it reduces the pool of people who are willing to participate, increases the level of people who participate actively and constructively. After all, paying money for something tends to make people want to make sure they get their money's worth, right?
Dirk: As a software developer myself, I am opposed to having people pay to work for me. Beta testers serve a very beneficial purpose to a developer -- to try to uncover as many problems as possible before the product is made available to customers. It is my responsibility to make sure that the product is as error-free as possible, and that means thorough testing.
Of course, the hard part of putting together a team of testers is to make sure that they will honestly test the product and to make sure that they have a range of skills (the novice user and the experienced programmer will each give you valuable information that the other might never think of).
But with a good sign-up form, it shouldn't be to difficult to select a good team. And in exchange for their work, I believe the developer should compensate them, maybe a free copy of the release version. Asking them to pay you to work for you is just plain wrong.
Chris: But Dirk, then there's the problem of money. As you no doubt realize, software is expensive to code, mostly because while you're coding it, you're not selling it. It's often tempting to gloss over the beta test just to get the code out the door so you can start making money off it, and fix the bugs later.
As I see it, a program where you pay to be a beta tester, then get a discount or free version of the release copy, is a valid attempt by software companies to
Dirk: Well, Chris, it's my opinion that if you can't afford to create a good product and test it thoroughly before releasing it, you probably shouldn't start it to begin with. The way I see it, if people are kind enough to go through the trouble of doing your testing for you, the last thing you ought to be doing is asking them to finance it!
Chris: What you say is true, but this only works if you're working on a model where you're the only company in the arena. If you're competing with other companies, and the majority of those companies are on the "Beta -- we're selling it as Gold Code!" schedule of software development (like Microsoft, Corel, et al.) you need to either a) publish your software on the same schedule they do or b) come up with a way to stay in business while you're doing things the right way.
Many companies can't afford to create a good product because the large companies are willing to settle for mediocre ones.
Now, does OS/2 have the same level of cutthroat competition as other OS markets? Perhaps not. But the standard seems to affect us nonetheless...
Dirk: I refuse to be that cynical or to believe that a paid beta program is the difference between success and failure for a company. I heard the same kinds of arguments from American automobile manufacturers until their Japanese competitors wiped the floor with them. Fortunately for them, they realized that if they were to survive, they would have to produce quality products in a timely fashion, and do so at competitive prices.
That is the way it works in any free market and the software business is no exception. I find it difficult to believe that a paid beta program would really bring in enough money to make or break a company. If it's large enough to bring in that much money, you're probably spending too much time trying to manage it.
Chris: I don't see it as cynical, just an honest assessment of how large companies can set up situations where smaller ones have to meet impossible expectations.
But anyway, here's yet ANOTHER reason why I think paid beta programs could be useful:
Suddenly, beta testers become paying customers. This gives the beta tester more assurance that their desires and observations will be heard, because, well, they have essentially become investors in the product. The relationship between a vendor and a beta tester changes when money is involved. By charging for their beta, the company is acknowledging that beta testers have more of a claim to be involved and affect the outcome of a program.
Note that I think such programs are ONLY valid in these circumstances. If a company is not willing to let the beta testers be more involved in the process, they shouldn't charge for their betas.
Dirk: Well, I guess I'm too old fashioned to believe that money has to change hands in order to create a sense of seriousness about the testing process.
When you say, "If a company is not willing to let the beta testers be more involved in the process, they shouldn't charge for their betas," I would say that if a company is not willing to let the beta testers be more involved in the process, the company shouldn't be doing a public beta in the first place. When someone gives me money, I believe they should be getting something in return. What does the beta tester get in return for their money? The right to have the company take them seriously? If money changes hands, I still think it ought to be in the other direction -- the company pays the beta testers for the work that benefits the company!
Chris: I have nothing against open beta testing -- in fact, from a financial standpoint, I'm all for them. Open betas and other such anarchic (meaning "free", not "chaotic") activities are what makes the Internet such a great place. But I think paid beta programs can be a very valuable way for software companies that want to write good code to combat the tendencies of monolithic corporations setting the pace of development simply because they are larger and have more resources.
Also, I see these programs as a way for users to invest in the software. If a user participates in an paid beta program, he or she should come into it with the idea that he or she is actually contributing to the development of the product, not simply reporting bugs. A company introducing an paid beta program should consider the participants as members of the development team, since they are footing part of the bill.
If someone is going to go through all the trouble of actually paying for beta code, the company should feel reasonably safe in expecting the user to participate actively in the beta process. And if someone is going to go through all the trouble of actually paying for beta code, the company damn-well better be willing to go the extra mile to develop a good working relationship with that customer. A properly set up paid beta program will put the end user deeper into the process of the program's development than a normal beta program.
And, of course, anyone who pays for the program should get compensation once the software is released. I think that should be a free copy of whatever the products is, but if it isn't, it should at least be discounted to the point where there's no way the company is making a profit (read: at least 75% off, people!)
These programs, if done correctly, can be a positive experience for all involved. If done incorrectly, they aren't 'paid beta programs'. They're scams.
Dirk: I can definitely see the advantage of a paid beta program from the company's point of view. I wish I could get people to pay to work for me! But that is wrong, plain and simple.
From my own experience, it is not difficult to put together a good team of beta testers. By doing a beta with successively larger groups of testers, you can work out most of the bugs that are likely to be of a critical nature. And once you have the small beta team, testing of later releases of the product should go even more efficiently.
I have never had any problem getting my testers to submit ideas for improvements in products. I find that they are quite enthusiastic about being involved, and I, in return, take their suggestions quite seriously. I see no reason why money has to change hands for that relationship to develop in other companies.
Dr. Dirk Terrell is an astronomer at the University of Florida specializing in interacting binary stars. His hobbies include cave diving, martial arts, painting and writing OS/2 software such as HTML Wizard.
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