Google Apps Go Legit

It's official: Google has gone legitimate. The software company's email and online calendaring, instant messaging and word processing applications officially shed their "beta" label this week.

It's official: Google has gone legitimate. The software company's email and online calendaring, instant messaging and word processing applications officially shed their "beta" label this week.

Gmail, the company's email service, was launched as an invitation-only beta release on April 1, 2004, then became available to the general public on Feb. 7, 2007. Millions of users signed on, yet the application remained in beta version until Tuesday. Google Talk, released in 2005, and Google Calendar and Docs, both released the following year, emerged from beta Tuesday as well.

So here's the million-dollar question: Why does this matter?

In terms of functionality, it doesn't really. The Google applications have long been considered mature by any software guru's standards, as evident by the number of devoted customers. (The exact number of users of each service is difficult to pinpoint, but most estimates are in the tens of thousands.)

So why maintain the moniker for so long? A 2008 blog in NetworkWorld.com quoted an explanation from a Google spokesperson:

We believe beta has a different meaning when applied to applications on the Web, where people expect continual improvements in a product. On the Web, you don't have to wait for the next version to be on the shelf or an update to become available. Improvements are rolled out as they're developed. . . . We're moving to a world of regular updates and constant feature refinement where applications live in the cloud.

Apparently, as of Tuesday, Google is finally satisfied. And that alone may have an impact on federal agencies that could have equated the word "beta" with "test version." No doubt federal employees use the applications already, but perhaps we can expect a surge in a more official capacity - Google Docs supplementing Microsoft Office, for example. Time will tell.

Speaking of Microsoft - the company has been offering a Windows 7 Release Candidate program for some time, in preparation of the official launch of the next version of the operating system in October. The "Release Candidate" is one step beyond beta and one step below official availability. Having downloaded the version on an old PC at home, my husband tells me that it appears to be an improvement over Vista. This is good news for Microsoft, who has had a very hard time quelling criticism of the buggy version, which in turn caused many federal agencies to stay put on the previous release, Microsoft XP.

From the "alpha" testing phase, to the beta version to the release candidate to general availability -- it's difficult to know for sure whether these are legitimate terms or marketing puff. But for the companies, who cares -- as long as they make potential federal customers a little more comfortable to shell out dollars.