Betas are now so widespread that the term is becoming meaningless.

I remember a time, way back in the distant past, when things were clearer. An apple was a piece of fruit (or British record label), development was limited to the construction industry and a palm was more useful on a rugby pitch than a corporate boardroom. In the old days, a beta was a piece of software in development, not yet ready to release to the world, but in a phase of testing and bug-squashing. It was invariably followed by a full, feature-locked version of the software which was released and supported by the manufacturers while developers worked on adding new features to subsequent releases.

How things have changed. Several years ago now, Microsoft embarked on a beta programme to share upcoming OSes and significant applications with partners and major customers. Though these apps were widespread and sat in a beta state for a period of months or years, they were eventually released. Well, aside from Longhorn (now Vista) which was first demo’d and released to developers in late 2003 (but that’s another story).

But now we’re starting to wade in beta soup. Beta products are now de rigueur and many companies release ‘public betas’ in part to solicit feedback from real-world users, and in part to stay ahead of competitors and shirk support responsibility.

Users are generally warned that beta products are for test purposes and don’t come with the support infrastructure reserved for finished products, but some companies seem to be extending beta programmes a little too long, and to too many users. Google products are widely criticised for living in a perpetual state of beta, and Microsoft’s renewed Web 2.0 push is unleashing a number of unfinished, buggy products on users.

I’m currently playing with Windows Live Mail, and am reasonably impressed with its functions, but wary of the beta tags slapped all over the pages and won’t even consider using it for real work.

I’ve also been relying on Microsoft’s AntiSpyware product since it was first released (albeit in beta), and was surprised to log on yesterday and see a note asking if I wanted to upgrade. I suspected that the beta was finally coming to a close and agreed to upgrade to the new version. Wrong! Instead of ending up with a final release of AntiSpyware I’ve now got a beta version of Windows Defender running on my PC (labelled Beta 2).

The software was informing me that my definitions hadn’t been updated in 104 days (despite previously having automatic, scheduled updates enabled in Microsoft AntiSpyware), so I decided to click on the link for the new software to poll for an update. A bubble appeared in the XP tray stating that there were no new upgrades ready for my system, but the Windows Defender status screen still hasn’t updated from the warning suggesting my definitions are 104 days old.

Great. So instead of running unsupported beta software that simply worked, I’ve been coerced into upgrading to another unsupported beta that doesn’t work.

If this is Microsoft’s big push into a web strategy to take on the likes of Yahoo! and Google, I’m a bit worried about what’s coming next.