We live in a beta culture. A Google search of the word “beta” retrieves 399 million articles. That’s more articles than the words “innovation” (108 million), “creative” (78 million), and “finish” (30 million) combined. Even “startup," which is a slightly more formal definition of “beta," only links to 325 million articles.
So what’s our obsession, particularly in the Internet business, with the beta ideal?
The reason, of course, is that everything on the Internet is in such continual flux that more and more digital products are born half-made and thus unready for the commercial world. Indeed, there is so much change online that nothing ever seems to be quite finished. Thus, even today’s Internet, which was once known as Web 2.0 and is now rapidly becoming the “real-time stream,” represents a meta-beta, an evolving beta in the clouds.
The “truth” (not a beta-friendly word) is that in the postmodern culture of the Internet, the ideology of beta is attractive. It represents flexibility, informality, plasticity, becoming -- the apparent essence of the rapidly evolving online world.
A blog, then, with its endless updates and commentary, is akin to a newspaper in beta. Wikipedia, with its always-evolving content, is an encyclopedia in beta. A 140-character tweet is an idea in beta. And John Borthwick’s Betaworks, the innovative incubator that has hatched Summize, Bit.ly, and Tweetdeck, is a midwife of beta real-time startups.
But I’m worried about the increasing centrality of the beta product and the beta ideal in the digital economy. Beta is a creditable practice -- as long it exists in parallel with the more adult world of finished products. But when it becomes the thing-in-itself, when there are no finished products, when everything is in perpetual flux, then the Internet economy has a serious problem.
At a real-time conference that I recently attended in Silicon Valley, almost everything appeared to be in beta. It wasn’t only most of the startups that were demonstrating their half-baked products, but even the sloppily untucked clothing of the unshaven entrepreneurs seemed to exist in a puerile, petulant beta.
What’s missing in this increasingly smoke-and-mirrors economy is the old-fashioned notion of shame. Unfortunately, the adult ideal of perfection has been replaced by the arrogantly childish cult of the half-finished product.
Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), of course, is the informal, “distributed” company that has most unashamedly pioneered the idea of the beta culture and the beta product. The problem with Google, however, is that most of its beta products have failed to take off.
The Chrome browser, for example, seems to exist in perpetual beta, as has the Google space initiative and the Google mobile telephone platform (rather than the Android, they should have called it the Betaoid), and even the “limited release” Google Gulp beta drink.
I suspect, too, that the Chrome Operating System, an initiative announced before it actually exists, will become a beta OS, always in transit and never quite ready for market.
Fortunately, there still remain some grown-up companies amidst the carnage of the beta cult. Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), for example, seems immune to the adolescent beta cult now infecting Silicon Valley. Microsoft didn’t go live with its promising new Bing search engine in late May until the product was actually ready for market.
In stark contrast, the day before the Bing release, Google announced the Wave communications platform, another product that doesn’t yet -- and may never -- exist. No wonder that Bing is having an immediate economic impact on the search-engine market, while all that exists of Wave is a Googlegram, a video, and some screenshots.
The simple fact is that unfinished products are unsuccessful. Thus the cult of beta will, like the Web 2.0 euphoria and other fashionable ephemera, eventually pass.
My advice to startup entrepreneurs is to resist the relaxed lure of the beta. Stand firm against launching your product before it is ready for market. Remember that it’s only real when it’s real. Be critical rather than proud of any imperfection in your products.
And tuck your shirt in, too, please.
— Andrew Keen, Silicon Valley author, broadcaster, and entrepreneur, can be reached on Twitter at @ajkeen.