What Is a Beta?

When software vendors work on a new or updated program, they perform
extensive in-house testing of the new version. This is called alpha testing, and
each new version of the software-in-progress is called an alpha. A beta, a term
you've probably heard used 3 or 4 or 20,000 times or so, is a later version of
the prerelease program that the company distributes to outside users for testing
and feedback. The process of third-party distribution, testing, and feedback is
called a beta test, and the users who put the program through its paces are
called beta testers.

The software industry has used the terms alpha and beta since the early
1980s, but they date back to the 1960s in the hardware world. In fact, the terms
are thought to have originated at IBM in the early 1960s and come from that
company's use of the terms A-test and B-test for the initial testing of new
hardware components.

Microsoft first started beta-testing its software in the early 1980s, and
almost all of its operating systems have run through a beta-testing cycle (the
possible exception is the original version of MS-DOS). The old DOS beta cycles
had perhaps a few hundred testers, but in recent years the Windows beta test
brigade has mushroomed. The Whistler (Windows XP) beta test had a whopping half
a million users, who combined to discover tens of thousands of bugs, big and

The numbers in the Longhorn/Vista beta test have been even bigger. Although
the first beta was distributed to just 10,000 users (but was also made available
to a few hundred thousand Microsoft Developer Network and TechNet subscribers),
it was estimated that up to 2 million people would take a crack at Beta 2, the
first build made available to the general public.

What do Windows beta testers do? Those of us who take our beta-testing duties
seriously end up doing quite a bit, actually. You have to install each beta, of
course, which is no small feat in itself because you have to download a 3GB
file, burn that file to a DVD, wipe everything from your test machine, run the
setup program, and then tweak your device drivers, depending on the level of
driver support in the beta you're installing.

Then you need to fill out an installation survey and possibly a hardware
survey. Then, most importantly, you need to use the operating system in various
scenarios to see if everything works the way it should. If it doesn't, you need
to submit a bug report to Microsoft. While you're doing this, you also need to
read and participate in the beta newsgroups, follow or contribute to the
periodic live chats with the developers, and try out the "feature previews" and
report your results.

Add to this the necessary (but not for the beta) tasks of studying
Microsoft's whitepapers and briefing notes for all the new technologies,
following the blogs related to the new OS, keeping tabs on the Microsoft "rumor"
sites, and all the while writing up your findings in such a way that people such
as yourself will know what to expect. It's hard but very satisfying work, and
one of the more tangible results of it all is the book that you now hold in your