Beta Test Definition & Meaning
A beta test is a type of trial period for a computer product prior to a commercial or official release. Beta testing is considered the last stage of testing before launch, and it normally involves distribution of the product to external beta test sites and individual users ("beta testers") for real-world exposure. Other beta tests may offer the product for a free trial download over the Internet.
Alpha testing vs. beta testing
The main difference between alpha testing and beta testing boils down to the users. In alpha testing, the people testing the product are internal employees of the company, whereas beta testers are external, third-party users. This means the focus of the testing also shifts from alpha to beta test scenarios. In alpha testing, developers are more concerned with the quality and consistency of the product—major bugs are observed, thoroughly documented, and resolved. Once the major kinks have been resolved in alpha testing, the product's security and reliability are put to the test.
Alpha testing typically takes place in a white box environment where the tester knows the ins and outs of the product being tested. The tester knows what kinds of things to look for and can anticipate what will happen when certain actions are performed. Beta testing, on the other hand, occurs in black box environments where the tester does not have prior knowledge of the product's design.
Finally, the goal of beta testing is to understand what use cases might not have been considered and to develop a solution to address these weaknesses before launch. In some ways, this is more impactful to how a product is received because it tests the real-world application of a product with real users in real environments. Alpha testing is based on hypothetical and idealized situations—it's helpful for laying the foundation of a product's structure, but the implementation needs to be refined and validated through beta testing.
Being a beta tester
All types of computer products, from operating systems to computer games, are usually beta tested before general release. In fact, many software publishers and developers have beta tester application forms that can be submitted online. When an applicant enrolls as a beta tester, they typically receive an email notification that a beta version is available for download, followed by several qualitative and quantitative feedback forms.
Beta testers are required to follow the directions of the company. For example, some may be required to sign a form (or indicate with a digital agreement) that expressly prohibits writing about the product or posting screenshots while beta testing. Sometimes bugs are logged discretely based on user behavior, but the user may also be responsible for documenting the errors they encounter.
Open vs. closed beta testing
Some software (particularly PC gaming software) will have multiple stages of beta testing, called open or closed beta. The closed beta immediately follows the alpha testing and it is open to a limited or selected group of beta testers. Sometimes, the software is made available to the general public for a short length of time to test a specific feature or update. This public testing is the open beta.
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