Virtuality with David Schultz

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Beta Than Nothing

May 23, 2000 - David Schultz

Last week Apple announced that it is making a beta version of OS X available to the public in a few months. It will probably be released in July at the Macworld Expo in New York, so it's a couple of months away - but there's nothing like the present to start preparing.

With Apple's recent rise in the consumer market, there may be people out there who don't know what a beta version is. Or maybe you do, but are just unsure how to proceed. If you fall into either of these categories (and maybe if you don't), this article is for you.

Before I make a few simple suggestions on beta testing OS X, I want to briefly touch on the controversy, if it can be called that, over the announcement.

When Apple announced and showed off OS X at Macworld Expo in January, Steve Jobs said that a "consumer version" would be available this spring. When they announced the beta, they said that was what they meant back in January. So the "consumer version" meant "public beta." They were very careful with their language at the time. We all know why: Software development is very tricky. It's a long process. Apple, too, is a small company that doesn't have the resources to put into development. (Actually, a smaller group of programmers working on a project is probably better than a committee which produces bloated, buggy software.) Knowing this, Jobs peppered his announcements with phrases like, "we hope to . . ." or phrases to this effect. There was talk on the Mac Web about whether this could be done or not, that is, whether they could get a consumer version out by this spring. Most, that is, took the peppered announcement with a grain of salt. Sure, Apple has engaged in semantic wordplay. But Apple is a company after all, with an image to look after.

Nonetheless, some were upset at the "delay." I was not. As I said at the night the announcement was made, I would rather have it done right than quick. This a major overhaul of an operating system. It's tricky and complex. I myself would rather have a beta than nothing at all, that is, nothing at all until January 2001. Hey, a beta is beta than nothin' in my eyes.

I want to add that if Apple sells the beta as a shrink wrap product, then they need to reward loyal beta testers. What I mean is that if they charge, say, $150 for the public beta, those who bought it should get the final version for at a reduced price, say $50 or $30. If they make it free (I don't think they will, for they want to keep those financials looking good and this is a way to do so), then this is a moot point, of course. The point is they should to build in some incentives for us to test OS X beta. This is a pragmatic point though, since most simply want to get their paws on any version of OS X, beta, free or not. Mac enthusiasm is incentive enough, but a "thank you" from Apple would be nice. With that said . . .

. . . prepare ye the way . . .

In preparing for the beta, there are some things we can start doing now. Before I look at them, I want to answer, for those who don't know, "What's a beta version anyway?"

When software is developed is goes through phases or stages of development. Originally, the "alpha" phase of testing includes unit, system and component testing. This is a very preliminary stage in development. For OS X, these have been called developer previews.

The second stage is the "beta" stage. At this point a beta is in a partially recognizable version of the final software. It is considered stable enough to go out of the software lab and into the "real world." This is important, because a software lab cannot completely duplicate every situation users will encounter. There are consumer, SOHO, large business (corporate) and educational environments which cannot all be duplicated in a lab. Moreover, there are permutations of hardware and software that can only be imagined in a lab. To save money (yes, it is a financial decision as well as a software one) companies release, as it were, prerelease versions of software for real world testing. This is a beta version: It's not complete, but complete enough that it can be examined relative to other computer components.

There are versions of beta software as well. For example, a piece of software may go through several beta versions, such as 1.01b, 1.02b and so on. When the testing is sufficiently complete the software goes to Master, Golden Master, Final Candidate, and finally up to the officially release to the public.

Beta testers are usually developers, that is, people who are developing software which needs to be compatible with whatever is being tested. If Joe wants to develop a game for OS X, and he wants to publish it the day OS X is released, then he needs a head start. So he gets a developer version which he can run his game on to see if it compatible. He also learns how certain APIs will be done and so on. It makes for better software all the way around. But it costs money to be a developer, and to join Apple's Developer Program. So it is open only to the few.

But the public can beta test as well. For example, you can sign up to be a beta tester for Qualcomm's email program Eudora. Look here and you'll see. There are many other developers who make their software betas available to the public. It's a good way to use some neato software if you know what you're doing!

Usually, though, a beta tester must sign or agree to a "Nondisclosure Agreement" (NDA). This is not always the case, but most of the time it is. There is such a thing as corporate spying, you know. An NDA means a tester will keep quiet about the features, improvements, and even, in some cases, the look of a piece of software being developed. Obviously, they don't want to give a leg up on the competition. By the way, keep this in mind when you read rumor sites that have screen shots and "anonymous reports" of beta software. I let you draw any conclusions.

A beta version is not completely stable, that's why it's a beta version. Actually, stability is only part of it. Compatibility is another big part of testing. After the software is developed it needs to be tested for compatibility with hardware and software. This is especially true of an OS which underpins everything. The point of testing is to find bugs and conflicts. And find them you will. Word on the street is that developer releases of OS X have been very stable. We hope so. But you need to keep this in mind.

The first thing you should do is search the Web and bookstores and read everything you can about OS X. Get to know OS X from afar instead of setting up a blind date full of surprises. Apple's OS X area is a good place to start.

Multiple Systems

With that said, here is the advice I offer to first time beta testers.

Do not install the beta of OX S as the only OS on your only machine. It's being tested, so you don't want to run it as your only OS.

What do I mean by "only OS"? Can't you have only one? No. Charles Moore, for example, has three OSes installed on his PowerBook. How? Hard drive partitioning. You can partition your drive with the Drive Setup software included with the OS and on their site. To partition a drive means to break it into parts. For instance, if you have a 10 GB hard drive, you can format it into three parts, each of 3.33 GB.* Then, you install your system software on the partitions. Install Mac OS 9.0.4 (or whatever version you're currently using) on the first partition and OS X Public Beta on another partition. To test it, choose the OS X drive as your start up drive from the Startup Disk control panel and restart your computer. This way you can simply choose which OS you'll run and work under by choosing which partition is the start up disk.

* Note that partitioning your hard drive will erase all the information on it. Be sure you have a current backup before partitioning your drive. Also, your partitions need not be the same size. See Hard Drive Partitioning by Scott Barber for more comments on partition.

Partitions are fine and pretty safe. And if OS X's memory protection is all it's cracked up to be, then testing will be even safer. But if you want to play it really safe, you need a second hard drive. If it goes down you loose nothing but what was on the drive.

You may not want to use USB because most Macs cannot boot from USB and it's much slower than a regular hard drive. If you have SCSI you're fine. If you have IDE, your controller may support an additional drive.

I would suggest, however, if you have FireWire or a 1394 card, that you buy a FireWire drive. VST makes some nice ones that are only as big as a deck of cards. (They are having a sale on the 3 GB one right now for $279. Look here.)

Once you have the partition or drive set up, methodically (read that again), install other software and start, well, testing. That is, just use it as you normally would.

Since you won't have single copies of mission critical information of the OS X, be sure to backup anything critical. Common sense.

Now just use it. Surf the web; use all the software you normally use and use it the way you normally would. When something does wrong, take notes. Notes are important, since Apple, if they do things right, will have a feedback center or phone number set up for this information. They want to know what you were doing when it crashed, if you can duplicate the crash, what solved it, and so on. You will want to have your hardware configuration handy, because they'll want to know exactly what you're using. Write down your RAM amount, printer used, kind of modem, and so on. Print out a copy of the System Profiler's feedback and have it handy. They will want to know. Troubleshooting software would be a good investment as well.

But do more than use it normally: Try to make it crash and try to cause conflicts.

What? Am I nuts? No, but you should go nuts. Fill the drive with oddities. Use older software; use newer software; install lots of fonts. It's also a good idea to get other beta software that is being developed for OS X and let developers know how their software is faring. Just mix it up good. You have nothing to lose, and Apple (and others) will want to know. In a word: Go Microsoft on OS X. See if it holds, and if so, how well.

Finally, let me say this: If you don't know what you're doing, don't beta test. It takes some good troubleshooting skills and a good working knowledge of hardware and software to beta test in a profitable and meaningful way. You need to be able to explain to Apple what's up. You need to know what the "Classic Environment" is, for example. And, of course, none of this applies to you if you don't have at least a G3.

I have tried to raise the level of discussion on the Mac Wed about the public beta release of OS X. It has been pretty pathetic out there, with people feeling almost personally offended at the situation. Let's get past it and deal with the situation as it presently is. There is nothing we can do about it, other than what I have suggested (which is a lot actually). Let's be productive and help out Apple. LEM

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