• The Leopard Report: What About a Public Beta?

    August 27th, 2005

    After a few years of promising and then failing to deliver its industrial-strength operating system, Apple changed its tack. First, there was a Public Beta version in September of 2000 to prove Mac OS X was for real, and then it clamped down. New versions are now demonstrated and then seeded to developers strictly to give them a chance to check their products for compatibility, but the rest of the Mac universe has to wait for the final release.

    All right, it’s true that some developers don’t take the nondisclosure agreements they sign to gain access to prerelease builds very seriously, and walk, or perhaps run to the nearest available Mac rumor site to spill the beans. Others can’t wait to post a pirated copy on an illegal software site. But that’s really beside the point. I really want to compare Apple’s marketing approach with that of Microsoft.

    Microsoft’s strategy is to make big and very public promises early on, and perhaps even demonstrate a rough and ready early development version. A shipping date may even be announced, but don’t take that, or the final feature laundry list, very seriously. They just want to get your attention. Maybe you’re contemplating a switch to the Mac OS or Linux, but now you sit up and take notice.

    The next step of Microsoft’s marketing cycle is to actually release a beta version of its new operating system. It may be late, and maybe the feature set isn’t quite as rich as originally promised, but now here’s a real product that will eventually end up in PC boxes worldwide. At some point, regular people like you and I can actually buy a copy of an early release version and use it to screw up our personal computers. Why let software developers have all the fun? So what if things don’t quite work as advertised, and you can’t get your printer or scanner to work. You’re part of the process now and your ego is filled with pride.

    Even better, you can shout your experiences to the world. Microsoft is not going to send anyone to your home to break your legs or summon you to court if you dare talk about its beta operating system. Tech journalists will happily review the beta release without fear of legal repercussions.

    So what does this have to do with Apple? Well, I understand why it won’t tell us about a new Mac or iPod until it’s ready to ship. Why give the competition any advantage, especially when it comes to the hottest selling digital music player on the planet? But its operating system is a different entity. It cannot keep the details secret until the last minute, because developers need a reasonable amount of time to work with the beta version.

    Now, from Apple’s point of view, maybe it doesn’t have to make a so-called “preview” version of its new operating system available to anyone except developers under confidentiality agreements. The Mac OS X Public Beta was a unique situation, where Apple’s corporate credibility was on the line and it had to take extraordinary measures. We know now that Mac OS X is a real, vital product and that new versions will continue to appear on schedule.

    There are also dangers in letting just anyone obtain a beta version of an operating system. Even if the worst known bugs are fixed before it goes to a wider release, it isn’t something to take casually. You can’t just install it on any old Mac and get back to work, because unexpected things could go wrong. An application crash or the inability to print or import pictures from a memory card may represent a small portion of your potential misery. You could lose data, maybe forced to erase your hard drive and start over. It’s not a plaything.

    However, with appropriately-worded legal disclaimers, maybe Apple should consider the possibility of a Public Beta version of Mac OS 10.5 Leopard anyway. Why? Well, it’s expected to appear right in the middle of the great transition to Intel processors. The new MacIntels will apparently be able to run both the Mac OS and Windows, and Apple will be playing in a new sandbox where such things are expected. Businesses may very well buy those new Macs because of their ability to run both operating systems at full native speed, and they’ll expect early exposure, just as they get under Windows.

    I suppose they could just pay those hefty annual fees and sign up for Apple’s Select or Premier developer programs, and get the beta software they want. They will be prohibited from talking about it, of course, but at least they’ll get the early access they expect while protecting Apple’s interests.

    But I still think a Leopard Public Beta might not be a bad idea, particularly if it comes while Microsoft’s marketing muscle is fully flexed to make sure that only Windows Vista captures the public’s imagination. What do you think?

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