You may recall the global excitement a year ago, when Gmail finally came out of beta – after an astonishing five years:
we realize that after five years, this leaves some of you wrestling with some tough questions. How will you ever get used to using Gmail without that familiar grey "BETA" text greeting you when you log in everyday? What example will you cite the next time you make an internet joke about perpetual betas? Don't despair... for those of you long-time Gmail-ers who might feel some separation anxiety, we've got a solution. Just go to Settings, click on Labs, turn on "Back to Beta," and it'll be like Gmail never left beta at all.
There's actually a rather serious point hidden among the badinage: that Google has set up its Labs to provide all kinds of wacky alternatives to its mainstream offering so that people can try out even more stuff – just as they did with Gmail.
We rather take Google Labs for granted these days, but like the seemingly-eternal beta tag on Gmail (and much else), it was actually a bold and important move. It represented a new kind of lab – not one reserved for academics or experts, but something that ordinary users were invited to explore and engage with.
This more public kind of lab has been spreading, albeit slowly: we have Mozilla Labs, Apache Labs, Eclipse Labs, the just-announced LinkedIn Labs, as well as the rumoured Facebook Labs and Twitter Labs. I predict we will see many more; indeed, I fully expect every self-respecting software company to set one up.
The reason, of course, goes back to open source. As Eric Raymond explained so well in "The Cathedral and the Bazaar", open source's mantra of "release early, release often" is a key part of its success.
It gets code out fast, which allows mistakes or misjudgements to be caught early on in the design process, and major changes of direction to be contemplated. It enables feedback to occur while the program is being written, not long afterwards, when most things have been set in stone. It establishes a deeper, and continuing relationship with the user, who is invited to become an active participant in the creation of the software he or she will use. At the same time, the beta/Labs label warns people not to expect perfection: that there are likely still to be bugs and glitches. Lowering expectations at this stage means less pressure on developers as they refine the product. It also gives the latter more room to experiment, and to be brilliantly bold.
With all those benefits – none of which was available to the same degree with the old, command-and-control approach to creating software – is it any wonder that more and more companies are stocking up on digital test tubes and pipettes?