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

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Windows Vista had a deceptively short public beta test of just six months, but that was masked by years of rocky, even suspended, development that overran one deadline after another. Five million copies of the May 2006 Windows Vista public beta were downloaded, Microsoft said at the time.

But since Windows 8's launch, Microsoft has been retreating from its historical practices. Last year's Windows 8.1 was publicly tested for just four months, and the follow-up, Windows 8.1 Update, released in April, was not tested at all. A rumored second Windows 8.1 update is to ship this fall, again likely without a beta, while reports have pegged the next major iteration -- whether labeled "Windows 9" or not -- to April 2015. Even if Microsoft announced today that it was about to kick off public beta testing, it would have less time for outside evaluation than it gave Windows 8.

The change hasn't escaped Miller. "I think that Microsoft today looks at [betas] and sees something that a) Doesn't jibe well with the idea of agile development cycles and b) Doesn't provide enough feedback to justify the time/financial cost," he said.

"Agile development" was Miller's nod to the faster tempo that Microsoft's promised -- and delivered -- for its software, Windows included.

Meanwhile, Apple, as it often does, has tacked in the opposite direction by instituting beta testing, a remarkable move for a company that prides itself on secrecy.

Miller thought he knew why. "It feels more like a PR exercise, although some bugs will surely be found," Miller said, citing his "evangelization" rationale for beta testing. "I think given the UI changes Apple is making, the scale of which we haven't seen since 2000, that a beta is important to both discover issues, but also to give users an opportunity to kick tires and possibly affect the direction of the product in the limited window of time available."

Apple risks little by taking the public into its Yosemite confidence, even if features leak, as they inevitably will, the program's legal muzzling notwithstanding. While there may be some risk to the edition's reputation if people pan it or the one-million quota is never reached, and the latter becomes public, there is little direct financial risk. Like OS X Mavericks last year, Yosemite will be free for the taking by Mac owners.

Any harm to Mac sales by a Yosemite flop -- on the level of, say, Windows Vista -- would be found out in any case, so withholding the OS from customers until it ships would only delay by a short time an eventual fall-off. But the public relations benefit to Apple could end up being considerable if Yosemite gets a thumbs up from the hardcore customers who will bother with the beta. In fact, the decision could well be Machiavellian: Apple may expect a steady stream of leaks that will feed the maw of Apple websites and bloggers through the summer and into the fall.

Mac owners can sign up for the Yosemite beta program on Apple's website. An AppleID is required and the Mac must be running OS X Mavericks.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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