Beta no more

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Strongback Consulting

The ruler of the known universe, Google, has announced that they are taking the Beta label off of Gmail after many years of being in this program. Gmail is probably the most famous beta software of all! While most of us had expected the beta program to go on forever, there are some good lessons to be learned from Google.

First, they set a precedent on rolling updates. By that I mean they rolled out regular updates and improvements, some offered as “labs'” for those items it deemed relatively risky or of minimal value to the end user. This is classic agile planning. However, by being used by as many millions of people as it is, it has helped to set the user expectation that it is O.K. to gradually roll out smaller improvements as the requirement priority dictates, with each release acquiring newer but sometimes obscure features. This is a much better approach that massive, radically changed software over longer stretches. Such change disrupts the user community and can often introduce other risks in the deployment, or in overall usability that would have been mitigated if the newer features were implemented in smaller increments.

Second, it set an example to the business community that they can be successful by keeping the application consumer involved in the design process. The Gmail team blog has always been top notch at letting the community know what they are working on. They showed how you can mitigate many risks by introducing new features as optional ones, by letting the consumer choose the rich UI, or the plain HTML interface, and by giving the consumer lots of outlets to voice concerns or complaints. IBM’s Jazz project has also been an excellent example of this. You know everything the development teams are doing at any given time, and you have the ability to review milestones of the Jazz build cycle yourself.

Lastly, by institutionalizing iterative development, they are showing how successful such an agile project can be. Can you imagine what Gmail would be if they had just released it fresh, unused this week after years of closed door development? Imagine how much consumer feedback they would have missed out on? Imagine how much advertising revenue they would have lost?

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