Betas are a tricky thing to get right. Realistically when you’re testing a beta product you’ve got a solid foundation of base functionality that you think is ready for prime time but you want to see how they’ll fair in the wild as there’s no way for you to catch all the bugs in the lab. Thus you’d want your product to get into the hands of as many users as you possibly could as that gives you the best chance to catch anything before you go prime time. Many companies now release beta versions of upcoming software for free to the general public in order to do this and for many of them it’s proven to work quite well. However more recently I’ve seen beta testing used as a way to promote a product rather than test it and the main way they do that is through artificial scarcity.
Rewind back to yonder days of 2004 and you’ll find me happily slogging away at my various exploits when a darkness forms on the horizon: World of Warcraft. After seeing many of the game play videos and demos before I was enamoured with the game long before it hit the retail shelves. You can then imagine my elation when I found out there was a competition for a treasured few closed beta invitations and not 10 minutes later had I entered. As it turns out I got in and promptly spent the next fortnight playing my way through the game and revelling in the new found exclusivity that it had granted me. Being a closed beta tester was something rather special and I spoke nothing of praise to all my friends about this upcoming game.
Come back to the present day and we can make parallels to the phenomenon that is #newtwitter. Starting out on the iPad as the official Twitter Client #newtwitter is an evolution in the service that Twitter is delivering, offering deeper integration with services that augment it and significantly jazzing up the interface. Initially it was only available to a select subset of the wider Twitter audience and strangely enough most of them appeared to be either influential Twitter users or those in the technology media. The reviews of the new Twitter client were nothing short of amazing and as the client has made its way around to more of the waiting public people have been more than eager to get their hands on it. Those carefully chosen beta testers at the start helped formed a positive image that’s helped keep any negativity at bay, even with their recent security problems.
This is in complete contrast to the uproar that was felt when Facebook unveiled its new user interface at the end of last year. Unlike the previous two examples the new Facebook interface was turned on all at once for every single user that visited the site. Immediately following this millions of users cried out in protest, despising the new design and the amount of information that was being presented to them. Instead of the new Facebook being something cool to be in on it proved to be enough of an annoyance to a group of people to cause a stir about it, rather than sing its praises.
The difference lies in the idea of artificial scarcity. You see there really wasn’t anything stopping Blizzard or Twitter from releasing their new product onto the wider world all at once as Facebook did however it was advantageous to them for numerous reasons. For both it allowed them to get a good idea of how their product would work in the wild and catch any major issues before release. Additionally the exclusivity granted to those few souls who got the new product early put them on a pedestal, something to be envied by those who were doing without. Thus the product that was already desirable becomes even more so because not everyone can have it. Doing a gradual release of the product also ensures that that air of exclusivity remains long after it’s released to the larger world as can be seen with #newtwitter.
I say all this because honestly, it works. As soon as I heard about #newtwitter I wanted in on it (mostly because it would be great blog fodder) and the fact that I couldn’t do anything to get it just made me want it all the more. I’ve also got quite a few applications on my phone that I signed up for simply because of the mystery and exclusivity they had, although I admit the fascination didn’t last long for them. Still the idea of a scarce product seems to work well even in the digital age where such restrictions are wholly artificial. Just like when say someone posts a teaser screenshot on Facebook sans URL to an upcoming web application.
I’m sure most of you knew what I was up to anyway 😉
It’s pretty easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your view of the world is the authoritative stance on everything. I can remember falling into that trap myself many years ago, way back in 2004 when I was first able to vote in a federal election. I, like many Canberrans, was a staunch Labor supporter and the discussions I had with my friends lead me to believe that there was absolutely no way that the Liberal party would get in. The resultthen was pretty startling and stands as one of the most distinct memories I have of being sucked into the group think and (wrongly) extrapolating that out to apply to the wider world.
Consequently the years that followed that fateful day when I realised I knew a lot less about something I thought I knew everything about I’ve been cautious when applying my understanding to the wider world. Sure it might not look that way on this blog sometimes (there have been a few posts that I’ve been horribly wrong about) but whenever I’m making some claim I always make sure I’ve got at least some evidence to back me up. As a rule if what I’m writing is festooned with links that means I’m usually writing something that I don’t believe should be taken on face value and needs to be backed up with evidence. A lack of links would indicate I’m writing something slanting towards an opinion piece, much like the one you’re reading now. I tend to strive to be logically consistent however, which I find sorely lacking in writings similar to mine.
Of course such a rant like this didn’t just come to me after staring at the blank post screen for a while. No as usual my morning browse through the feed readers for a topic of interest happened across this little gem:
Instead, like Beach says, the thing some consumers don’t like about the iPhone is that it’s AT&T only (in the U.S., obviously). Even if you live in an area where AT&T doesn’t absolutely suck, having no choice of carriers is a big restriction. People have work plans, family plans, etc, etc, that they just can’t switch. Or they don’t want to.
If the iPhone was on Verizon (which is a larger network, remember), is there any question that it would be selling at least double the amount of units it is right now in the U.S.? I don’t think so. What if it was available on all the networks? And what would happen to Android sales if that was the case? That is the big question here.
And the original article that inspired it.
The article deals with the idea that Android is only succeeding because of the exclusivity agreement that Apple has with AT&T. While I don’t argue the fact that limiting a handset to one carrier in a large market would affect sales it conveniently forgets the fact that nearly everywhere else in the world the iPhone is not exclusive to one carrier. In fact the exclusive agreements that were in place for many carriers in other countries ended some time ago. Sure the US is a large market but the conditions of the market there are not indicative of the rest of the world and to draw conclusions based on that is at best misleading.
Funnily enough the whole idea that the TechCrunch article was based off was just a throwaway line from the original article, which overall I agree with. Had the iPhone not had any exclusivity agreements with any carriers its market would definitely be larger and would have caused some issues for Android adoption rates. However the fact that Android devices are available to a much larger market due to their wide range of handset options means that whilst that would have caused problems for them initially it would only delay the inevitable. The rest of his comments I have to take on face value as I’ve only just downloaded the SDK for Android and have yet to pay the Mac tax in order to be able to do some iPhone development.
Realistically its nigh on impossible to not succomb to this kind of behaviour as you can never have all the information required on everything you need to pass judgement on. I understand that and hell I’ve made enough decisions based on incomplete information than I’ll care to admit. However understanding that your view of the world might be missing some critical information can help make your judgements more sound and rational, or at the very least give you pause before doing something that will come back to bite you in the ass sometime later.