Marketing wins: Gmail leaves beta behind

Gmail has finally gone out of beta, after more than five years of carrying the "beta" label. But it's leaving beta not because of any great technological leap forward, but because Google has been having a hard time selling software labeled beta to enterprises.

Today, the official Google Blog announces that Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Calendar, and Google Talk -- the suite that makes up Google Apps -- are all leaving beta. Google makes no bones about it: This is a marketing move. The blog notes:

We've come to appreciate that the beta tag just doesn't fit for large enterprises that aren't keen to run their business on software that sounds like it's still in the trial phase.

Google didn't make any actual changes to the software to bring it out of beta. Rather, it recognizes that big companies don't like the idea of running their enterprises on beta software. Google salespeople cannot have been happy seeing the word beta in the Gmail logo, and then having to try to sell Gmail to a big company.

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The truth is, though, this is one instance in which marketing is right. Gmail has been a solid product for years, and there's no reason it should be called beta. The same holds true for all of the other Google services that are going out of beta today.

The real question is why the products were called beta for so long. In its blog, Google acknowledges it treats the term "beta" differently than does the rest of the industry:

We're often asked why so many Google applications seem to be perpetually in beta. For example, Gmail has worn the beta tag more than five years. We realize this situation puzzles some people, particularly those who subscribe to the traditional definition of "beta" software as not being yet ready for prime time.

However, the company never goes on to explain its own definition of beta.

The biggest loser in all this? Microsoft. Google will be more easily able to sell its services, now that they're out of beta. It'll still be a long slog for Google, but it will no longer have to contend with enterprises not wanting to buy beta software.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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