Should Learning Content be in Perpetual Beta? – Guest post by Jay Cross

BETAWhat is a “beta version”?

“We could take beta off all of our products tomorrow, and we wouldn’t actually have accomplished anything…If it’s on there for five years because we think we’re going to make major changes for five years, that’s fine.”  Google co-founder Larry Page

Beta is the last, still buggy, version of software before its official release to customers. At least that’s how we used to define it.

In the last nineties, Netscape broke with tradition and made beta copies available to customers.

My friends and I all ran beta versions of the Netscape browser. Sometimes it worked; sometimes is blew up in your hands. You could always install the most recent official version if the beta failed.

Some considered this high-risk behavior, unprotected browsing. Netscape prospered by co-developing innovations with thousands of customers, many of them geeks offering solutions. Collective intelligence enabled Netscape to stay a step ahead of rival Microsoft until Microsoft “cut off its air supply” through monopolistic, illegal practices.

Perpetual beta was born. It means never finished.

Beta software is buggy but it hangs together well enough for users to test and provide feedback. At least that was the idea before Google released a beta version of Gmail in 2004.

Gmail Beta was nearly flawless yet it was labeled Beta and remained so for a record-breaking five years. This was quite the contrast to Windows, the official version of which crashed all the time.

Google gave up on numbering releases, preferring to slipstream improvements into the product without much fan fare. Labeling Gmail Beta didn’t mean it was buggy. Beta meant that Google had bigger plans for Gmail that would be rolled out over the course of years.

“Striving to be right first time is no longer acceptable. It means you’re not willing to listen.

Historically, Microsoft released new versions of its software every few years. Google makes improvements to its software every day. In its early days, Flickr changed its software every hour. “Ship early and ship often,” a maxim from the Open Software movement, became “ship continuously.” Of course it’s easier to pull this off when your software is free and resides in the cloud. The sooner the software delivers benefits, the better for everyone. With the fervor of an Agile team rebuilding and running software builds daily, the development team on a product in perpetual beta monitors service in real time. What started as software morphs into value added services.

Critics say developers hiding behind a beta label lack confidence in their products. The developers retort that quite the contrary, “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”


“I AM OUT OF TIME. You bought the beta edition of this book. Things change so fast that all books are dated by the time they are published. The world is moving too fast for closure. Our lives are in beta.”     Introduction to Informal Learning

The meme of perpetual beta — that something’s not over with and may well get better if we work on it together — changes the relationship between buyer and seller.

When something is labeled beta, you expect it to have errors and are happily surprised if you don’t find any. Finding and helping correct flaws is one of the psychic rewards of the implicit bargain which makes the customer a happy co-developer.

The fact that I needed an invitation to use Google Gmail in the early days made it feel like joining a large club. You had to be recommended! I offered Google a few product suggestions along the way. I liked being able to watch Gmail’s evolution, feeling like an insider. I’m a loyal user.

Beta is an invitation for users and suppliers to co-develop improvements. Beta is a signal that the cement has not dried and you’re still open to making improvements.

Being in a beta relationship invites dialog instead of criticism. People are very forgiving if they are being listened to.

For example, suppose I release a campaign or report clearly marked Beta. I invite you to partner with me to make things better. I summon your help. We bond. We are amigos. We sit on the same side of the table. If I’d labeled that same report Final, you’d have been all over me about typos.


Shouldn’t we declare most things we want to persist to be in beta? Tis better to partner with users than argue with them.

Nothing is forever. In the long run, evolution keeps life and the lessons of experience in perpetual beta. Even when something is a perfect fit with its environment, environmental change will render it obsolete.

Everything flows. In the long run, everything is beta or dead.

The opposite of Perpetual Beta is closure. The topic is no longer a subject for discussion. People cease trying to make improvements, for the ones worth making have already been made. We’ve closed the book on it.

Closure makes room for the next chapters but it shuts down attention in the brain. Never tell people they’ve graduated from anything because it causes their memories to atrophy. Keep the things you want to keep alive in beta; close out the others by withdrawing your attention.

The early 20th century Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik came up with an extraordinary but little-known theory about closure.

As a student at Humboldt University, she watched a waiter taking orders in a Viennese café. The waiter could remember an elaborate order until he had delivered it, after which it vanished from memory.

The “Zeigarnik effect” says people remember things that are not finished because they maintain a tension in the mind awaiting closure. Ultimately Zeigarnik proved that people remembered unfinished tasks about twice as well as completed ones.

Thus, if an instructor wants students to remember a presentation, she will end the class in mid-sentence, before drawing a final conclusion. To remember the book you’re reading, take a break in mid-chapter, not at a more natural stopping point.

If you want to keep something actively in mind, don’t close it out. Think of it as beta.