A typical release cycle for software development includes something called the beta-testing phase. The idea is to improve the product by enabling users, rather than developers or professional testers, to provide feedback.
The relationship between the software company and the beta testers is usually based on barter. No money is exchanged. The software company gets test services from the user, and the user gets familiarity with an upcoming product, familiarity that may provide some personal or professional benefit.
One major current example: Microsoft's upcoming Windows 7 operation system is currently in "beta." The company opened up the beta to the public on Jan. 9, then stopped offering or allowing downloads of the beta on Feb. 10. The testing and feedback continues, and no money is changing hands between Microsoft and beta testers.
Microsoft no doubt hopes to get Windows 7 on the market by Christmas. Once it goes on sale, the operating system will be a "shipping" product. Microsoft will start charging money for it.
Those of us who comment for a living on the quality of software take very seriously the distinction between "beta" software and "shipping" software. Broadly speaking, features and functionality that appear to be headed for the shipping product are fair game for criticism. Things like performance and stability, which will no doubt be tweaked, well, we tend to give companies the benefit of the doubt. It is, after all, just an unfinished "beta." The software company isn't making money from the "beta," so it doesn't make sense to criticize aspects of it that may be corrected in the shipping version, which the software company will sell for perfectly good money.
What about Google?
What are we to make of Google's "beta" products and "experimental" features?
Just like Microsoft and many other software companies, Google designates a huge number of its many online services as beta, and many features as merely "experimental."
For example, did you know that Gmail is still in "beta," and has been in the "beta" stage of development for five years?
Some of Gmail's best features aren't "real" features, but designated by the company as "experimental." Gmail Labs launched in June, and since then the company has posted more than 35 "experimental" apps or features. The company explained its labs concept in a Gmail blog post:
"The idea behind Labs is that any engineer can go to lunch, come up with a cool idea, code it up and ship it as a Labs feature. To tens of millions of users. No design reviews, no product analysis, and to be honest, not that much testing. Some of the Labs features will occasionally break."
All new Gmail Labs features and apps are announced by a casual blog post on the Gmail blog. This low-key launch is designed to support the idea that the new features are merely "experimental."