Perpetual beta leads to less magical devices

[via Daring Fireball]

Matt Honan writing for Gizmodo - Siri Is Apple’s Broken Promise

A long time ago, I made a compact with Apple. "You can control my entire technological life, from my computer to my phone to my stereo. I'll pay premium prices. I'll dive into your product ecosystem, and buy books and music and movies and apps from you. Even though they won't work on devices made by anybody else."

In exchange for surrendering control and submitting to that heftier price tag, I expect Apple products to simply work. That's all. If you use Apple products, I suspect you made a similar bargain.

And so when I first saw the ads for Siri, I expected something remarkable, like I always do with Apple products. The first true consumer-grade AI. Can you imagine how amazing it would be to have a real intelligent assistant on your phone?

After playing with Siri for more than a month, I'm still waiting to find out. Instead of an intelligent assistant I found a lie, and worse, a broken promise.


I'm sorry. Beta? Beta is for Google. When Apple does a public beta, it usually keeps it out of the hands of the, you know, public. It typically makes you go get betas. It doesn't force them on you, much less advertise them. Not that it is an effective disclaimer for the vast buying public. For most people who see Apple's ads, and buy iPhones, the word beta means nothing at all. It might be a fish, or a college bro.

Well beta is for web services and not finished hardware. That would apply to any software which is core and running on that hardware. In a secretive world of Apple, we don't see half baked products. Doing that would make them less magical and take the gloss away from Apple CEO when he is ready to release them in an event where nobody knows what he going to talk about.

When O'Reilly talked of "Release Early and Release Often", he was talking of all things Web 2.0, the same principles does not apply to hardware. Knowledge@Wharton covered the issue with respect to Google and its foray into tablets sometime back.

Is Google Stuck in 'Perpetual Beta'?

But while this model of frequent product updating may work for desktop software, Werbach and others point out, applying the perpetual beta approach to hardware isn't easy. "On the web, the launch-and-iterate cycle can be short. If your code is buggy, you gather the feedback and you can fix it in a few hours or in some cases a few days," notes Kartik Hosanagar, an operations and information management professor at Wharton. "The damage done from buggy code is not too acute. With hardware, the cycle time of product development, production and finally distribution is too long. You cannot just fix the issue and release new hardware in a couple of months, let alone hours or days."


Experts at Wharton say the challenge for the company is navigating the two segments for its markets. One segment -- web services like Gmail -- can be tweaked over time. Google's Gmail was in beta for five years. When Gmail came out of beta in July 2009, Google acknowledged in a blog post that the beta tag would not suit everyone, such as "large enterprises that aren't keen to run their business on software that sounds like it's still in the trial phase."

But the other segment -- consumer electronics -- may require more software development rigor. "One has to separate the idea of on-going refinement from the notion of releasing a product before it's ready for prime time," says Karl Ulrich, an operations and information management professor at Wharton. "There is a trade-off between waiting too long for a perfect product and frustrating the user with a buggy product." When it comes to tablets, Google appears to be on the frustrating side of the equation for now. In the Bloomberg BusinessWeek article, Andy Rubin, head of Google's Android effort, acknowledged that design compromises were made to get Honeycomb to market as quickly as possible.

Hardware is much more challenging than online web applications, Whitehouse notes. "Google's mental framework is based around cloud computing. Hardware is different. Often, the device manufacturer is an external partner and your software is baked into the device. It's a whole new ballgame that puts more pressure on the software vendor to get it right the first time."