Sometimes you’ll hear about a “beta” program. What’s that all about, and should you participate?
A “beta” test is a loose concept that is a stage in the development of a final product. Usually there is first a rough prototype or two that are not exposed to customers. Then an “alpha” product is produced, typically used only internally at a company, where the alpha item more or less represents what the company hopes to send to market.
Then there is the “beta” machine, which might be considered a real “candidate” for actual release to the public.
The problem is that the company doesn’t truly know whether the machine works as they hoped in real customer situations. If they were to simply release the beta machine as is, they might “get surprised” by previously unknown bugs in the systems as encountered by the first users. That could lead to bad press, and ultimately a product launch failure.
To avoid this, companies often perform what’s known as a “beta test”. This involves secretly placing beta machines at typical clients and having them put the machine through paces.
For the client there are some advantages:
It could enable them to make use of features no one else yet has
They might be able to start development on their own new products earlier than their competitors
They could receive a machine at no or lowered cost
Significant attention from the manufacturer, who may even be onsite to assist
It’s fun to work on a secret project
But there are some downsides, too:
The company will require consistent and detailed reporting of experiences, good or bad
There will likely be something going wrong; it is not a finished product, after all
You cannot speak publicly about the test equipment and especially your experience with it
You may be required to issue positive testimonials afterwards, perhaps at live public events
It can be a lot of work to participate in a beta test program, but if the benefits outweigh that work, then it could be a valuable experience for both parties.
How do you get involved in a beta program? There are several ways.
Normally the manufacturer wants to work with “friendlies”, organizations and individuals who have some affinity with the manufacturer and honestly want them to succeed – and most importantly won’t go rogue, badmouth the company or release secret information, either accidentally or purposely.
For this reason, companies typically select beta participants on their own and approach them directly. In other words, “you gotta know someone”.
However, for some lower level desktop products that are intended to be marketed widely, a company might issue a public call for testers. This approach obviously doesn’t work if the company intends on keeping the product secret before announcement.
And that leads to another aspect: participants will be required to sign a “non disclosure agreement”, or “NDA”. The NDA will legally ensure the participants do not disclose the information publicly, or to anyone for that matter. When you are presented with an NDA, please read it very carefully before you sign to ensure there are no untoward clauses that conflict with your expectations.
Finally, there is another way to get involved in a beta program: Ask! There’s nothing stopping you from approaching a company to suggest that, based on your experience and friendliness to the company that you would make an ideal candidate for a future beta test. And once you’re on their list, you may find yourself repeatedly asked to test new equipment.
Beta testing can be work for participants, but it can also be a ton of fun with sometimes significant benefits.