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Apple returns to beta testing with Yosemite, just as Microsoft downplays the ritual

'Feels like a PR exercise,' says analyst of Apple's decision to publicly beta test OS X

Apple has returned to public beta testing of its Mac operating system after a 14-year absence, just as rival Microsoft has begun backing away from the practice.

On Monday, Apple said that it would expand a small public beta program that launched in April to include OS X Yosemite, the visually-revamped upgrade expected to release this fall. Previously, only registered developers -- admittedly a low bar, as Apple lets anyone with $99 become one -- have been able to obtain Apple pre-release software.

"We're doing something a little unusual as well this summer. We're doing a public beta program," said Craig Federighi, who leads OS X and iOS development, near the end of his introduction of Yosemite at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference.

The peculiarity of Apple's move can be gauged by time that's passed since it last let the general public see its operating system in the raw: In 2000, Apple offered a "Public Beta," or PB, of what was then code named "Kodiak," which ultimately shipped as OS X 10.0, better known as "Cheetah." Apple charged customers $29.95 for the privilege, somewhat understandable because in those pre-broadband days Apple fulfilled the orders with a CD. Apple's refusal to beta test its software has not gone unnoticed. At regular intervals, usually right after the launch of a new edition of OS X, users who report problems will chastise Apple for not having widely tested the software before its release, assuming that if only Apple had, those bugs would have been found and fixed.

Microsoft knows better: Historically it has run extensive public beta tests of Windows, giving the public much longer looks than the five months Apple intends with Yosemite, and putting the OS into the hands of many more people than will Apple, which has limited the beta to one million participants. And still bugs make it through to the final Windows.

Yet betas are valuable, argued Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft who once worked at the Redmond, Wash. company as a program manager in the Windows Core OS team.

"Because we were dealing with 'white box' PCs that could have hardware or software from all over the place, bad antivirus, and more, betas -- and especially install fairs -- were useful to gauge real world experiences of what was, and was not working correctly, early," Miller recounted in an email reply to questions. "I saw them as an invaluable cycle of the development process."

In general, betas serve three purposes, said Miller: feedback on what new features are or are not working as intended, feedback on what once worked but now broken, and evangelization. "One can argue about the order of those in importance," he said.

Unlike Apple, Microsoft has a tradition of long, large beta tests.

For Windows 8, Microsoft kicked off the first preview in mid-September 2011 and offered two additional builds before releasing the software in October 2012, testing for 13 months. One million copies of the March 2012 Windows 8 Consumer Preview were downloaded in its first 24 hours of availability, according to Microsoft.

The cycle before that, Microsoft shipped Windows 7 nine months after it kicked off the first beta in January 2009. Although Microsoft had initially set a limit of 2.5 million participants, it scratched that after a botched start and eventually extended availability long enough to make some wonder if there had been as much interest as the company claimed.

Windows Vista had a deceptively short public beta test of just six months, but that was masked by years of rocky, even suspended, development that overran one deadline after another. Five million copies of the May 2006 Windows Vista public beta were downloaded, Microsoft said at the time.

But since Windows 8's launch, Microsoft has been retreating from its historical practices. Last year's Windows 8.1 was publicly tested for just four months, and the follow-up, Windows 8.1 Update, released in April, was not tested at all. A rumored second Windows 8.1 update is to ship this fall, again likely without a beta, while reports have pegged the next major iteration -- whether labeled "Windows 9" or not -- to April 2015. Even if Microsoft announced today that it was about to kick off public beta testing, it would have less time for outside evaluation than it gave Windows 8.

The change hasn't escaped Miller. "I think that Microsoft today looks at [betas] and sees something that a) Doesn't jibe well with the idea of agile development cycles and b) Doesn't provide enough feedback to justify the time/financial cost," he said.

"Agile development" was Miller's nod to the faster tempo that Microsoft's promised -- and delivered -- for its software, Windows included.

Meanwhile, Apple, as it often does, has tacked in the opposite direction by instituting beta testing, a remarkable move for a company that prides itself on secrecy.

Miller thought he knew why. "It feels more like a PR exercise, although some bugs will surely be found," Miller said, citing his "evangelization" rationale for beta testing. "I think given the UI changes Apple is making, the scale of which we haven't seen since 2000, that a beta is important to both discover issues, but also to give users an opportunity to kick tires and possibly affect the direction of the product in the limited window of time available."

Apple risks little by taking the public into its Yosemite confidence, even if features leak, as they inevitably will, the program's legal muzzling notwithstanding. While there may be some risk to the edition's reputation if people pan it or the one-million quota is never reached, and the latter becomes public, there is little direct financial risk. Like OS X Mavericks last year, Yosemite will be free for the taking by Mac owners.

Any harm to Mac sales by a Yosemite flop -- on the level of, say, Windows Vista -- would be found out in any case, so withholding the OS from customers until it ships would only delay by a short time an eventual fall-off. But the public relations benefit to Apple could end up being considerable if Yosemite gets a thumbs up from the hardcore customers who will bother with the beta. In fact, the decision could well be Machiavellian: Apple may expect a steady stream of leaks that will feed the maw of Apple websites and bloggers through the summer and into the fall.

Mac owners can sign up for the Yosemite beta program on Apple's website. An AppleID is required and the Mac must be running OS X Mavericks.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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