Beta Eta a Spoiled Fish

May 21, 2009

Michael Arrington’s “Google’s Beta Love May Die in Fight for Enterprise Customers” ripped the covers off a big Google shin scrape. He pointed out here that perpetual product betas, particularly Google’s, may not help close enterprise software deals. He wrote:

About half of Google’s products were still in Beta at the end of 2008. Retaining the Beta notation in the logo gives the company a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card when problems occur. Hey, it’s still in Beta, so don’t be surprised when something goes wrong. There’s a problem though. Sure, users think Beta is geeky and fun and cutting edge. But it turns out that enterprise customers are a little more serious about stuff working.

He provided a link to a Google video of Marissa Mayer explaining Google betas. You will have to read his essay and watch the video and make up your own mind.

My view on Google betas has been spelled out in some detail in my three Google monographs, and I can highlight a handful of my observations in this forum:

  1. Google, like many organizations, is not sure what will work. The result is a culture of start-stop-assess. The notion of a beta is an ideal method for making indecision work as a tactic. It’s not IBM’s fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It’s “sort of” and “maybe”.
  2. Google needs data. A beta is a click thermometer. A product shoved into the wild can attract a loyal following like Gmail and earn “perpetual beta” status which is what Mr. Arrington described clearly. It also makes it easy to determine which products are dogs and can be starved or killed. Think Web Accelerator.
  3. Betas are disruptive. I think that the discovery by Google management of its disruptive power was a happy lab accident. Now, the notion of developing a service quickly and probing a potential market makes it hard for competitors to figure out exactly what Google is going to do in their sector. Consider the Recommendations feature rolled out almost the same day as eBay’s announcement of its acquisition of StumbleUpon. Nothing much came of Recommendations, which I still use, but it is a subtle disruptive perturbation. Shoot enough waves into a sector and something interesting may happen. Betas generate these forces.

Now Google betas, if I understand Mr. Arrington’s point, are causing a bit of indigestion. Google’s betas may have eaten a spoiled fish and seems to require remediating action. I liked Google’s eternal beta program because it has helped destabilize a number of sectors, thus creating opportunities. Google’s shaking up online, for instance, helped create an environment in which Facebook and Twitter could emerge and evolve.

Stephen Arnold, May 21, 2009


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