SVUG #11: What do 'alpha' and 'beta' really mean?

SVUG #11: What do 'alpha' and 'beta' really mean?

PAUL BOUTIN — Engineers use Greek letters like alpha and beta to be specific. But the fuzzy logic of marketers and magazine editors (me included) has rendered them meaningless. SVUG defines proper jargon after the jump.

Software makers have standard terms for stuff that isn't ready to sell to customers yet. Distilling the extensive Wikipedia entry to two lines:

  • alpha — the first protean, buggy, incomplete version of a program worth test-driving. It has nothing to do with "alpha geek," a self-deprecating pun on alpha male.
  • beta — an almost-ready version, shared with customers willing to report the bugs.

Alpha and beta are just Greek for a and b. They were, anyway, until 1994, when Netscape accidentally turned "beta" into a World Wide Web buzzword by giving away over a dozen beta versions of its browsers in three years. For Web hipsters, using Netscape's buggy beta features shifted from an option to a requirement. If you don't remember pounding your keyboard over Finnish sites that locked you out with "go install Netscape 2.0b3," you weren't really there.

Today, beta gets thrown around as a metaphor for "newer" rather than "not ready," applied to amorphous Web content and services rather than precisely numbered computer programs. It's confusing: Is Business 2.0 Beta really next month's print magazine, blogged for factchecking and typos by willing test readers? That'd be even ballsier than the issue they outsourced to India.

If you're not talking software, leave alpha and beta to the twinks who put "2.0" after any slightly changed version of anything. Instead, SVUG recommends these advanced metaphors:

  • How's that business plan coming? "I can send you a pre-alpha if you promise not to laugh."
  • Is your blog redesign live yet? "I think I've got a release candidate, wanna see?"
  • Dude, you're writing for Valleywag 2.0! "Nah, it's more like Valleywag 1.1."