What is (was) Beta Software?

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For Virtual Coffee’s November Blogging Challenge

I just wrote another blog article which I’ll post tomorrow, which explains a bunch about this, but since I decided to slip this one in first, you’ll just have to wait for it.

What is Beta Software, and Why Do We Call It That?

These days, when we refer to “beta” software, it’s generally means some half-baked, buggy, pre-release version of the code, where the developers are still working on it. This is a bit different from it’s original meaning.

It started in the dim dates of computing, in the 1960s & ’70s. Back then we didn’t have the fancy graphical user interfaces on our software as we do now. (I use “we” and “our” to refer to our collective consciousness – I’m not quite that old.)

In those days, programs were more like what we’d call a “console” or “command-line” program today – although that still implies the existence of a video display, which there wasn’t. These would be loaded from a stack of punch cards.

Lacking interactivity, programs tended to be single-purpose. You run it, it does something, it reports what it did (which came via a printout, often came off the printer hours after the program was actually run). Also, there wasn’t much retail software. Most was either included as part of the operating system, or written in-house.

In-house software didn’t have the formal QA process we have today, as the users were generally the authors of the code. But it’s always good to have a second set of eyes looking at something, so if someone else needed that functionality, they could often get a copy of the code, with the promise that they would report back any problems. This became known as the “Beta site” for the code — the second place the code was used. The author’s workplace would, in theory, be the “Alpha site” but no one called it that.

The point is that the code that went to the beta site was the complete, final version of the program. If someone at the beta site find and reported a bug, it might be fixed in version 2 – if there was a version 2. (We hadn’t got to point-versions yet.)

It was only is the packaged software era, which basically started when we moved from mainframes to PCs in the ’80s & ’90s, and particular as we moved to graphical interfaces – where the user interface, separate from the basic function of the application, grew in importance, requiring design input from many people, and being a source of many bugs, did the idea of release unfinished software to a select group of people rise. And this is when we coined the back-formation “beta software” for this half-baked code that went to the beta site.