Breaking Out Of Google’s Beta Limbo

Google’s release of a new Google Groups service today ironically causes the majority of features offered via the Google home page to be in beta status.

Ironic? Consider some of the definitions Google itself provides about what a beta test is. In general, it’s when a product is ready for user testing but not quite ready for release to the general public. Despite this, most of what Google offers on its home page to the general public are beta products — and long-standing beta products, as well.

I love nothing more than a good chart to illustrate things, so here’s a rundown on what Google lists on its home page, when the product was originally launched in beta and how long it was (or remains) in beta status:

Service Launched Left Beta Time
Sept. 1998 Sept. 1999 1 year
June 2001 Dec. 2001 6 months
Feb. 2001
Dec. 2004
Dec. 2001
Back In Beta
10 months
Mar. 2002 Still In Beta 2 years,
9 months+
Dec. 2002 Still In Beta 2 years+
Oct. 2004 Still In Beta 2 months+

When exactly Google web search emerged to the public in beta status is actually hard to determine. I’ve gone with the date the company itself was founded. Before that time, the Google search engine existed and was still running off of servers out of Stanford University. At some point, the Google logo gained a “beta” label next to it. When exactly that was, I don’t know.

FYI, you won’t see the beta logo by looking at old screen shots via resources like Internet Archive, such as here from December 1998. But screenshots I have from the time do show it, which means the source image the Internet Archive uses were probably changed and overwritten. We do know that Sept. 1999 was when the beta label disappeared.

Aside from Google Web Search, Google Image Search is the only other service listed on the Google home page that’s not in beta. Ironically, it’s also a service that hasn’t been updated for over six months, as we’ve covered before. If anything deserves to be called beta, perhaps it’s Google Images.

Overall, 4 of the 6 major services on the home page — 66 percent — are in beta. If you don’t use Google Desktop, then it’s 3 out of 5 services in beta, or 60 percent of them.

The numbers are worse if you consider all the other Google offerings not listed on the home page but itemized on the Google Services page, as well as the Orkut social network system and the Gmail system that aren’t listed there:

Still In Beta

  • Google Alerts
  • Google Catalogs
  • Google Local
  • Google Scholar
  • Google Web API
  • Gmail
  • Orkut

Out Of Beta

  • Google Answers
  • Google Directory
  • Google Wireless
  • Google Toolbar
  • Blogger
  • Keyhole
  • Picasa

Looking at those services gives us a tie — but only because Blogger, Keyhole and Picasa are services that were out of beta when Google purchased them. Internally, Google has a very poor track record of moving its own products into a final release.

It’s understandable for services to be in beta for a short time, even if released to a site’s home page. But at some point, it’s time to drop that label and either call the service fully supported or withdraw it from the home page.

Google News and Froogle Shopping have both been in beta for 2 years or more — that’s well overdue for them to get a final stamp of approval. Contrast them against Yahoo Local, which went from beta to final version in only 2 months.

I asked Google when Froogle at least might come out of beta. The response was effectively when the company felt it was ready. Internally, that service, along with others, still have features they want to add. For example, merchant ratings were recently added, along with grid and sort-by-price views.

Adding new features is great, but perhaps a solution would be for Google to release a final version of a product, then beta test it with new features, then update the final version when ready. In other words, rather than Froogle being in eternal limbo, give us Froogle 1.0, Froogle 2.0 and so on.

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