Almost Half of Google is Beta

Oops, looks like someone forgot to finish Google (GOOG). According to Pingdom, website monitoring service, almost half of Google’s products are still in beta.

Out of the 49 Google products we could find, 22 are in beta. That’s 45%!

This list includes well-known products such as Gmail, Google Docs, and Google Finance. Pingdom didn’t include Google Labs products because they’re considered a “playground” for future products – though if they did, the percentage would be 57%.

What’s especially notable is that Gmail and Google Docs are products with premium editions – for $50 USD/year, you get more storage space, better security, integration capabilities, and deeper technical support.

The question on everyone’s (well, everyone who’s read Pingdom’s article, at least) mind is: why? Why are so many of Google’s products still in beta?

Why Are 45% of Google’s Products in Beta?

My take is that this is the result of a lack of oversight, coordination, and product release process within the product management organization at Google.

Google is full of smart people. It’s not like they want nearly half their company to remain in beta. However, Google is a company mostly run by engineers, not product people. Engineers typically want to build cool, innovative, and new products, as opposed to working with existing code. Ask an engineer to build you a new feature and the engineer is likely to rebuild your entire architecture in the process. Building something new is way more fun than working on something old.

So perhaps most of the top engineers who built Gmail and Google Docs have moved on to new projects, leaving junior engineers to continue their work. And the product managers don’t have a lot of resources or authority to take these products out of beta.

Other Opinions

Some have guessed that Google is trying to limit their liability by using the “beta” label. I seriously doubt that. Though I’m no lawyer, I would guess that since they accrue revenue from these products, the beta label doesn’t given them any extra protection. I’m not sure that a beta label would give anyone any serious protection anyways.

Others have surmised that Google is just making a statement that they’re constantly building & improving their products. That, of course, begs the question: why are some products in beta and others not? Are only some still being improved while others are not? And you don’t need a beta label to do that.

Google is Struggling Through Puberty

I see this beta label as an example of how Google is a young company that grew up very fast. They went from childhood to adolescence before they was totally ready for it. To be fair, many of the best companies do that. Now Google is struggling with puberty, that awkward age where they’re trying to stay true to their childhood ideals while becoming more responsible. Their voice is squeaky and there’s hair in funny places. But they’re trying.

What Beta Officially Means

Within the software world, a beta release is:

The first version released outside the organization or community that develops the software, for the purpose of evaluation or real-world black/grey-box testing. … Beta version software is likely to be useful for internal demonstrations and previews to select customers, but unstable and not yet ready for release.

Since Google is using this term, I have to imagine that they know what it means. But they clearly aren’t using it properly, since a product that is “unstable and not yet ready for release” is definitely not something for which you would want to charge your customers. Yet they are.

The argument that beta is Google’s way of telling the world they still have huge product plans is unfounded. Web software, by its very nature, allows for uninterrupted and relatively seamless updates. They don’t need a beta label to state the obvious, especially if they don’t use the label consistently.

Lack of a Product Release Process

That’s why I fault Google’s product management organization for this. They know this. At least, I hope they do. They just may not have the power and muscle to do this. And chances are, someone is emailing Pingdom’s entry around the Googleplex like crazy with the note, “Hey guys, did you see this? We gotta get on this!”

I hope someone listens and fixes this. Perhaps by doing an internal audit of all their products for official release viability. Or at least by implementing a proper product release process. This process doesn’t even have to be a convoluted and bureaucratic process; just a simple checklist will do. Otherwise, they’re diluting the beta label.

Though, honestly, I don’t think this is going to have a dramatic impact on how people use its products. Only software programmers and web geeks know what beta means, so they (we) are the only ones who are really bothered by it.

It certainly does irk me though.

Author: Mike Lee

An idealistic realist, humanistic technologist & constant student.

One thought on “Almost Half of Google is Beta”

  1. Good insights. I hadnt thought of it that way. I think it is lame too, though honestly, I have largely forgotten that their products were still in beta.

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