Apple returns to beta testing with Yosemite, just as Microsoft downplays the ritual

'Feels like a PR exercise,' says analyst of Apple's decision to publicly beta test OS X

Apple has returned to public beta testing of its Mac operating system after a 14-year absence, just as rival Microsoft has begun backing away from the practice.

On Monday, Apple said that it would expand a small public beta program that launched in April to include OS X Yosemite, the visually-revamped upgrade expected to release this fall. Previously, only registered developers -- admittedly a low bar, as Apple lets anyone with $99 become one -- have been able to obtain Apple pre-release software.

"We're doing something a little unusual as well this summer. We're doing a public beta program," said Craig Federighi, who leads OS X and iOS development, near the end of his introduction of Yosemite at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference.

The peculiarity of Apple's move can be gauged by time that's passed since it last let the general public see its operating system in the raw: In 2000, Apple offered a "Public Beta," or PB, of what was then code named "Kodiak," which ultimately shipped as OS X 10.0, better known as "Cheetah." Apple charged customers $29.95 for the privilege, somewhat understandable because in those pre-broadband days Apple fulfilled the orders with a CD. Apple's refusal to beta test its software has not gone unnoticed. At regular intervals, usually right after the launch of a new edition of OS X, users who report problems will chastise Apple for not having widely tested the software before its release, assuming that if only Apple had, those bugs would have been found and fixed.

Microsoft knows better: Historically it has run extensive public beta tests of Windows, giving the public much longer looks than the five months Apple intends with Yosemite, and putting the OS into the hands of many more people than will Apple, which has limited the beta to one million participants. And still bugs make it through to the final Windows.

Yet betas are valuable, argued Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft who once worked at the Redmond, Wash. company as a program manager in the Windows Core OS team.

"Because we were dealing with 'white box' PCs that could have hardware or software from all over the place, bad antivirus, and more, betas -- and especially install fairs -- were useful to gauge real world experiences of what was, and was not working correctly, early," Miller recounted in an email reply to questions. "I saw them as an invaluable cycle of the development process."

In general, betas serve three purposes, said Miller: feedback on what new features are or are not working as intended, feedback on what once worked but now broken, and evangelization. "One can argue about the order of those in importance," he said.

Unlike Apple, Microsoft has a tradition of long, large beta tests.

For Windows 8, Microsoft kicked off the first preview in mid-September 2011 and offered two additional builds before releasing the software in October 2012, testing for 13 months. One million copies of the March 2012 Windows 8 Consumer Preview were downloaded in its first 24 hours of availability, according to Microsoft.

The cycle before that, Microsoft shipped Windows 7 nine months after it kicked off the first beta in January 2009. Although Microsoft had initially set a limit of 2.5 million participants, it scratched that after a botched start and eventually extended availability long enough to make some wonder if there had been as much interest as the company claimed.

Craig Federighi
Apple executive Craig Federighi announced Monday that Apple would run a public beta test for OS X Yosemite, the first such program in 14 years. (Image: Apple.)
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