By Ruby Bayan

Most self-respecting IT pros would think twice before deploying beta software on their system networks. Unstable, incomplete, and buggy, these works-in-progress betas have the potential to create headaches for all levels of the organization.

However, respectable software applications need to go through the beta phase before they can mature into their foolproof, headache-free rollout versions. Because one of the integral components of the beta phase is a sufficient level of interaction with the applications’ potential client base, reputable applications developers go out of their way to collaborate with users—a relationship that could prove mutually advantageous.

Your risks with beta software will be real, but if you know how to make the most of the situation, the benefits can easily outweigh the risks. Here are some suggestions and insights from users who’ve reaped the benefits of using beta software in production.

Ask for features that are important to you
Groxis Inc., a provider of visualization software, came out with a beta version of Grokker, an application that creates a colorful knowledge map out of raw masses of data by sorting them into themed islands. Isabel Stirling, Associate University Librarian at the University of California, Berkeley, was one of the many Grokker beta users.

“In my case, at a large university library, this software showed promise for merging graphical searching and clustering with huge databases like online catalogs,” she said, adding that it’s fun to provide feedback that helps shape software to make it the best it can be.

Stirling’s participation gave her the opportunity to see the development of the software and to “match more closely how our brains work in this business of gathering, assimilating, and sharing information.” Even for simple things, like where buttons are placed, she said that each version showed greater fluidity in making the software intuitive and enjoyable to use.

Establish your niche on the leading edge
As a Sun Microsystems Center of Excellency (COE) for computational chemistry, University of Ulm in Baden-Wuerttemberg was a beta site two years ago for Solaris 9 Platinum and today for Solaris 10.

“The betas offer a number of new and some unique features we can take advantage of to improve services for our customers,” said Thomas Nau, vice director of Ulm’s computer center.

Being a beta site may have been financially beneficial to the University, but Nau said it’s tough to quantify.

“I cannot measure monetary benefits by numbers,” he said. “For example, being a COE, we had the worldwide first international workshop on the new release of Gaussian—one of our ‘standard’ programs at Ulm. Most of the developers and the COE of Gaussian Inc. were present, so you can imagine that this helps the University, but in a nonmonetary way.”

Nau added that doing betas and implementing new OS releases early helped a lot in system administration and overall utilization of the machines due to new tools and features. He described his positive experience in one sentence: “Betas ensure that you stay on the leading edge of technology.”

Demand unwavering technical support
CanWel Distribution Ltd. is a wholesale building materials distribution company that serves retail and light industrial manufacturing markets across Canada. The company is in a beta program with JD Edwards for its SCM 9 release. Application manager Leah Hansen cited the benefits it enjoys as a participant of the program.

“Being part of the testing phase has been a great experience—to be able to get a feel ahead of time as to the changes coming and be part of the end result because we can give our input.”

Hansen added that more important, receiving hands-on, personal training on the enhancements would be expensive if the company wasn’t part of the program.

“We have had both technical and application consultants on site to help us as well, which is also a benefit.”

Scott Testa, CIO/COO at Mindbridge Software and a veteran prerelease version user, advised that in a beta environment, it’s critical to ensure that the applications provider delivers sufficient support and resources. “You have to know what kind of support comes with the beta,” he said.

Testa added that by making sure that the provider’s technical team was in place, Mindbridge’s users had timely access to the core support group whenever they needed assistance with the beta system.

Accept no less than a deal to die for
Aside from giving impeccable technical support, applications providers often sweeten the beta pot by throwing in a free copy of the full release version. Such was the case with Mindbridge, which realized an estimated savings of $400,000 for the CRM application it previewed.

Short of giving free software, many vendors will package attractive incentives with their beta programs, including deep discounts and a “special treatment” clause in their sales and support agreements. It’s up to the beta users to negotiate for acceptable trade-offs.

Appreciate the bottom line: A win-win
Vendors and beta users are aware that they need each other in the overall effort to roll out efficient and reliable software applications. This symbiosis is eminent in InterfaceFLOR Inc.‘s beta experience with the Grokker Enterprise Edition.

“[We] beta’d with Groxis because we were able to contribute domain expertise to Groxis’ horizontal software development effort, which yielded a product that ensured it addressed our direct needs,” said InterfaceFLOR president, Greg Colando.

Groxis benefited from it too because it was able to codevelop vital enterprise software with the benefit of vertical market, true customer expertise, Colando said.

All things reasonably considered, the beta experience should not necessarily carry the stigma its name implies, said R.J. Pittman, CEO of Groxis, Inc.

“A beta product is a tremendous opportunity for the customer to learn a great deal about a software product’s capabilities, and a great way to benefit from much more involved support, customization, and participation from the software company.”

Pittman concluded that companies with beta products have everything to prove at that stage and almost always go far beyond the call of duty to ensure that the beta program converts to a top referenceable customer.

Have you beta’d?

Have you realized great benefits from agreeing to use a beta version of software in your organization? Send us the details of your beta experience, and we may use it as an article on TechRepublic.