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Paul Festa

Staff Writer, CNET

Once considered the penultimate stage of software development, beta versions are taking on a life of their own, as companies tinker endlessly with their products in public.

Underscoring the trend, Google co-founder Larry Page on Wednesday told investors that the beta, or test, stage for its products would last as long as its engineers expected to make major changes to them–a process that has already taken years, in some cases.

“It’s kind of an arbitrary thing,” Page said. “We could take beta off all of our products tomorrow, and we wouldn’t actually have accomplished anything…If it’s on there for five years because we think we’re going to make major changes for five years, that’s fine. It’s really a messaging and branding thing.”

Google’s beta time frames represent one of the most dramatic expansions yet for a process that until recently was used as an opportunity to discover fatal flaws and make final touch-ups in advance of a product’s full public release.

The beta version, named for the second letter of the Greek alphabet, typically refers to the second stage of software testing. Traditionally distributed to a limited group of testers, it follows the alpha version, which is tested in the lab.

But in recent years, as complex applications reach their audience through Web sites rather than as shrink-wrapped or downloaded software titles, beta tests are getting longer, less restricted and more common.

“I have noticed it more frequently in the past three years,” said Catarina Fake, co-founder and marketing chief for online photo site Flickr, which observes the first anniversary of its beta stage on Thursday. “Three years ago, I don’t have a lot of recollection of beta being used on Web sites.”

“We could take beta off all of our products tomorrow, and we wouldn’t actually have accomplished anything.”

–Larry Page, co-founder, Google

Flickr is hardly alone in expanding the use of the beta cycle. Google is famous for the quantity and longevity of its betas. Google Catalogs? Beta since 2001. Google News? Beta since 2002. Froogle? Just as old.

Recent changes to Google’s Gmail Web mail site roused speculation that its beta phase might be coming to an end.

As beta cycles at Google and elsewhere sprawl out into years-long affairs, some people are complaining that a crucial line between prime time and half-baked is being blurred.

“I feel like ‘beta’ has become a questionable term,” said Mary Hodder, a technology consultant. “Google and Flickr just leave it on their sites for years, so it cues us to think, beta, no big deal.”