Is ‘perpetual beta’ a good thing?

Do you remember when software came in a box with discs and instructions that you installed on your PC then parked on your shelf? This is a fading memory with software on the web and continuous updates, but is this ‘perpetual beta’ a good thing?

When you hear about ‘beta versions’ of software you probably think about “a pre-release version of software”, which rings alarm bells about constant changes and buggy code.

But there’s more to it than that with advantages like faster time to market, continuous improvement and high-responsiveness to user needs. This is the ”perpetual beta” pattern  identified by Web 2.0 guru Tim O’Reilly as a key indicator of success for Web 2.0 applications, where:

product is developed in the open, with new features slip-streamed in on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis

It’s no longer a ‘throw it over the wall’ approach to your customers but a continual conversation with them. This has ups and downs for the business – with ups like reduced costs to release and opportunites for close relationships with your uses balanced against downs like avoiding feature overload, thrashing and poor quality. But, it can be painful and challenging as GateGuru found out through a cycle of poorly received releases. Which highlights the highs and lows for customers – with highs like easy updates and no-cost upgrades but also lows when the product doesn’t work or makes changes you don’t want!

So if you think ‘perpetual beta’ might be a good thing, then read on and see how PDF Expert rates against the best practices of O’Reilly’s pattern. PDF Expert from Readdle is a clever solution which allows you to read, sign and annotate PDFs, fill out PDF forms on the go, and even synchronise with Dropbox, SkyDrive or any WebDAV storage.

PDF Expert ticks a lot of the best practices of the ‘continual beta’ pattern:

PDF Expert

PDF Expert from Readdble.com

  • They release early and often with their agile development and automatic test, as their release history shows.  The favourable user reviews proves they can get their product out quickly but also make sure it meets acceptable quality standards.
  • They engage users as co-developers and real-time testers by reading their user reviews on the product site but also through an open thread to their customers and using their blog to help their users.
  • They then implement the feedback and instrument their product to match as their press releases explain and have also gone further to incrementally create new products to both offer their customers new products but also capitalise on their in-house skills.

PDF Expert has also avoided some of the common problem areas:

  • They have avoided the feature excess issues some of their competitors faced but unfortunately this has left them with a no-frills label as the conclusion of this review suggests
  • They have done better than the unfortunate example above from GateGuru and avoided release thrashing but they have not been so responsive as their frequency of releases is a bit uninspiring but at least they have success and manage their first impressions nicely as some reviews highlight
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6 thoughts on “Is ‘perpetual beta’ a good thing?

  1. Hi,
    First of all, this is a good article with an interesting title. Different people have different opinions. But as far as I am concerned, perpetual beta is practical and useful. I haven’t heard of the PDF Expert before and you are introducing it in a vivid way. I think engaging users as real-time testers is very useful and help a lot to improve the application.
    Nice blog.

  2. I hadn’t heard of this app before, the price tag is interesting as the commenter above mentioned. I’m quite sure on my (Android) phone there my free pdf app lets me fill in forms, however, it is a bit tedious. I would hope that PDF Expert is very user friendly?

    I think one of the great things about perpetual beta is the “slip-streaming” you mentioned – it’s not as if the whole app changes and you almost have to relearn the interface, instead, things progressively change and its almost a seamless transition from a user’s POV.

    Great post, Bronwyn!

    • Yeah, I hadn’t heard of it but it came up in a list of ‘top apps’ so I checked it out. I guess a lot of people handle PDF docs and forms and are looking for a clean solution. They have put a price on it, but it gets good marks for ease-of-use.

      I read your post about Adobe Creative Cloud and found it really interesting – it shows the other side of apps and what happens when you buy a version of software.

      I think there is a group of users who currently pay a lot more than $10 for software and this price might not bother them. Also, if they are well ahead with their quality and usability, then they can beat the competition on quality instead of price.

  3. Great blog post, great explanation of a simple product. I was interested in it’s cost until I found out about the $10.49 price tag. Is that really a great selling point considering many mobile apps sit in the $0.99 – $5.00 range?

    • Hey, I never said it was good value J If you look at this link, I think it got pegged down on price. I think each business needs to work out their value-proposition. If you have a great product, then ask what you think it’s worth and let the customers decide. Personally, I think the basic features for a basic price should get the users hooked and they should be happy to pay for more features. I think this will come up in some later posts, so watch this space.

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