As the old joke goes, alpha tests and beta tests are named that way because “alpha” is a Greek word that means “doesn’t work,” and “beta” is another Greek word that means “still doesn’t work.” But seriously, we know that the classical software product lifecycle includes tests performed by the development team (alpha tests) and tests performed by a limited number of selected users (beta tests). Beta testers have to accept that the software may have bugs (otherwise, what would be the point of testing?) and they commit to taking the time to provide detailed feedback on the issues they encounter. In exchange, they get to use the software early, usually for free, and may even get a price break on the final license price.
With Enterprise 2.0 capabilities, especially those delivered as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), the model is changing a bit. The current level of interest in Google Wave, the novel collaboration environment that merges email, instant messaging, and wikis, is a case in point. The service is still in limited release, by invitation only — although since it is reported that the invitations have spread to one million users, “limited” is a relative term. So it has definitely gone from the alpha to the beta stage. But a new, interesting stage is already emerging, the “meta” stage. What I mean is that people are creating waves (the editable, rich-text conversations that are at the core of Google Wave) about Wave itself. I got involved in such a wave today. In about three hours, four or five of us, all from different companies, were editing the wave to compile a list of use cases of Google Wave, rebuttals to another expert’s dismissive comments, etc.
The prefix “meta-” is used to indicate recursion: a metamodel is a model about models. So “meta users” are the people who use a capability to discuss the capability itself. It didn’t happen with ERP or CRM software (unless a salesperson, returning from a client, wrote in the CRM system’s visit log that the client was upset about the vendor’s communication — that would indeed be a comments about CRM in the CRM system itself). It probably happened with the telephone: one can assume that when people first called each other, they discussed their usage of this new instrument in addition to the actual reason for the call. It definitely happened with email — I’m “experienced” enough to remember it. And now it’s happening with Google Wave.
This has interesting consequences, one of which is that the adoption of the product, its positioning, and even to an extent its definition, are not really under Google’s control anymore. The community of beta users is, through its meta-use of Wave, helping sort out what are the best reasons to use it, the best practices, when the ability to see someone else type in real time is helpful or distracting (I think it can be both, but it is definitely weird at first), etc. Google, which is too smart to not have seen this coming, may have just managed to outsource a big part of its marketing effort to its own users!
Alpha, beta, meta… this may be the new product lifecycle model, at least for collaboration tools.