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Apple returns to beta testing with Yosemite, just as Microsoft downplays the ritual

Gregg Keizer | June 5, 2014
'Feels like a PR exercise,' says analyst of Apple's decision to publicly beta test OS X

Unlike Apple, Microsoft has a tradition of long, large beta tests.

For Windows 8, Microsoft kicked off the first preview in mid-September 2011 and offered two additional builds before releasing the software in October 2012, testing for 13 months. One million copies of the March 2012 Windows 8 Consumer Preview were downloaded in its first 24 hours of availability, according to Microsoft.

The cycle before that, Microsoft shipped Windows 7 nine months after it kicked off the first beta in January 2009. Although Microsoft had initially set a limit of 2.5 million participants, it scratched that after a botched start and eventually extended availability long enough to make some wonder if there had been as much interest as the company claimed.

Windows Vista had a deceptively short public beta test of just six months, but that was masked by years of rocky, even suspended, development that overran one deadline after another. Five million copies of the May 2006 Windows Vista public beta were downloaded, Microsoft said at the time.

But since Windows 8's launch, Microsoft has been retreating from its historical practices. Last year's Windows 8.1 was publicly tested for just four months, and the follow-up, Windows 8.1 Update, released in April, was not tested at all. A rumored second Windows 8.1 update is to ship this fall, again likely without a beta, while reports have pegged the next major iteration -- whether labeled "Windows 9" or not -- to April 2015. Even if Microsoft announced today that it was about to kick off public beta testing, it would have less time for outside evaluation than it gave Windows 8.

The change hasn't escaped Miller. "I think that Microsoft today looks at [betas] and sees something that a) Doesn't jibe well with the idea of agile development cycles and b) Doesn't provide enough feedback to justify the time/financial cost," he said.

"Agile development" was Miller's nod to the faster tempo that Microsoft's promised -- and delivered -- for its software, Windows included.

Meanwhile, Apple, as it often does, has tacked in the opposite direction by instituting beta testing, a remarkable move for a company that prides itself on secrecy.

Miller thought he knew why. "It feels more like a PR exercise, although some bugs will surely be found," Miller said, citing his "evangelization" rationale for beta testing. "I think given the UI changes Apple is making, the scale of which we haven't seen since 2000, that a beta is important to both discover issues, but also to give users an opportunity to kick tires and possibly affect the direction of the product in the limited window of time available."


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