A Call for Revolution Against Beta Culture

I'm tired of this. This sense of permanent discomfort with the technology around me. The bugs. The compromises. The firmware upgrades. The "This will work in the next version." The "It's in our roadmap." The "Buy now and upgrade later." The patches. The new low development standards that make technology fail because it wasn't tested enough before reaching our hands.

The feeling now extends to hardware: Everything is built to end up in the trash a year later, still half-baked, to make room for the next hardware revision. I'm tired of this beta culture that has spread like metastatic cancer in the last few years, starting with software from Google and others and ending up in almost every gadget and computer system around. We need a change.

Take the iPhone, for example, one of the most successful products in the history of consumer electronics. We like it, I love mine, but the fact is that the first generation was rushed out, lacking basic features that were added in later releases or are not here yet. Worse: The iPhone 3G was really broken. For real. Bad signal, dropped calls, frozen apps. This would have been unthinkable in cellphones just five years ago. They were simpler, for sure, but they were failure proof. Today's engineering and testing is a lot more sophisticated. In theory, products can't go out into distribution with such glaring problems undetected.

Another recent example is my iMac 24, which had the infamous video card problem out of the box. How can a machine with such an obvious problem-instantly detected by the user base-be sold like that? The same happened recently with Nvidia video boards. In fact, graphic cards-being always in the cutting edge of technology-are perfect examples of beta hardware being sold as final hardware, with many released with beta-quality drivers and requiring firmware patches.

From that to the now-universally-accepted Blue Screen of Death, from buggy Blu-ray players to the Xbox 360's red ring of death and PS3's bugs, even from kitchen ovens to faulty DSLR cameras, the list of troubled products is endless. Just this week, the eagerly anticipated BlackBerry Storm launched to mixed reviews, in part because of its crashy, apparently unfinished software.

On the other side, my parents have a Telefunken CRT TV and a Braun radio from the '70s which are still in working condition. They were first generation. They never failed. Compare that to my first plasma TV from Philips, which broke after less than a year of use. Mine wasn't the only one. The technology was too young to be released; it was still in beta state. Philips wanted to be the first in the world with a flat TV and beat the competition, so they released it. This probably wasn't a good move: Today, Philips' TV business is struggling, and is nonexistent in the US. Meanwhile, my Sinclair ZX Spectrum and Apple IIe from the 1980s still work like they did from day one, perfectly.

For sure, today's products are far more complex than those of 20 or 30 years ago. But back then, the manufacturing was also a lot worse. It was less automated, often purely manual, and imperfect. Today, in a world where automated factories run 24/7, there's less chance of error. Yet still, there are countless problems in the final products, and those problems affect every unit in an entire model line. In the age of manufacturing perfection, there are still major recalls concerning products that burn or break.

Clearly, the problem is the development process and the time to market, with product cycles shortened and corners cut to keep a continuous stream of cash flowing in. The rush to feed these cycles with increasingly more complex engineering seems to be at odds with shortened development and quality assurance processes, resulting in beta-state first-generation products. This beta culture, the same one that already plagues the web, breeds people who are willing to accept bugs in the name of cutting-edge gear.

Who's to blame? Google and their web apps? Apple and their iPhone 3G problems? Microsoft and their countless buggy versions of operating systems and the Xbox 360's RROD? Philips? Sony? Samsung? LG? We all are. The manufacturers, who are driven by a thirst to expand and satisfy their shareholders at all costs. The consumers, who are so thirsty to drink in the shiniest, newest technology that they are willing to sacrifice stability. And the press too, who pours more gasoline onto the consumerism bonfire by writing glowing reviews and often minimizing things that are simply not acceptable.

Personally, I'm tired of all this. But I'm mostly tired about the fact that it seems that we all have given up. Tired because now we see "upgrades" as an opportunity to protect our investment, but in reality, it's laziness and a poor job on the manufacturer part that we have accepted without questioning. Instead of calling foul play and refusing to participate, we keep buying.

That's the key: We have surrendered in the name of progress and marketing and product cycles and consumerism. Maybe those are good reasons, I don't know, but looking at the past, it feels like we are being conned. Deceived because the manufacturers of electronic products have taken our desire to progress faster and even embrace the web beta culture as an excuse to rush things to market, to blatantly admit bugs and the rushed features sets and sell the patches as upgrades.

Maybe the recession will put some order in this thirst of new stuff and change the product cycles. As the economy slows down, people will think twice before buying the latest and greatest; they'll keep older hardware for longer. Then, manufacturers will have to rethink their product lines, and lift their feet from the accelerator, which will result on slower cycles and better products. Maybe that's our ticket for better electronics that actually make sense.

Or maybe... maybe that will be another excuse for the manufacturer to cut even more corners and keep lowering prices so that consumers keep spending and ending up with worse products than we have now.