Tablet Makers: Thanks for Letting Us Beta Test With You

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There's nothing quite like a sneak peek. I'll never forget the day my father and I got free tickets to a preview screening of Super Girl starring Helen Slater. We got to see an original cut of the film, and though it was one of the worst movies we'd ever seen, the theater gave us comment cards to fill out so we could help the producers improve their product before final release.  They didn't obey my missive to just "erase the whole thing and start over again," and the final release was a bust, but it felt good to know that someone wanted our feedback.

Today, we have to thank the numerous tech vendors who are giving us an opportunity to beta test their products. We've long appreciated software companies such as Microsoft—which frequently releases public betas of its upcoming browsers, operating systems, and office suites— for giving us a look behind the scenes. And Google is famous for showcasing beta and even alpha versions of its products, just to give everyone a chance to see what's coming.

So why do the experts, including my colleague Mark Spoonauer, criticize tablet vendors so vociferously for releasing half-baked slates? Don't they realize that BlackBerry and HP are giving users and developers the chance to get in on the ground floor of their exciting new platforms?

In his column last week, Mark asked of HP's sometimes-sluggish TouchPad  "why not wait a few more weeks—or months, if need be—to iron out the kinks before releasing the tablet?"  I'll tell you why not. That's exactly what a secretive company like Apple would do.

Steve Jobs and Co. won't even announce a new product until it is 100 percent ready for prime time. But in holding back the details and its thinking on upcoming products such as the next-gen iPhone and iPad, the company is shooting  its customers, its partners, and ultimately itself in the foot.

Developers need to know what's coming so they can start building apps and map out their own strategy for supporting (or ignoring) a particular platform. IT managers, who are mapping out their deployments for the next 18 months, need a road map to plan ahead, something Apple would never give them. A lot of mainstream consumers would also like to know what's coming next before they commit to a two-year contract on a subsidized device, only to find out three months later that something better is coming along.

While technophobes start to freak out if their new gadget isn't fully baked, cooled, packaged, and aged like a fine wine for them, true geeks want to be gadget pioneers. So what if the HP TouchPad takes 5 seconds to change orientations or 10 seconds to open an app? Do you have some kind of hot date you're running to and can't wait?

Who cares if the BlackBerry PlayBook occasionally runs out of memory after you've opened too many apps? Who hasn't felt like their brain was full after watching a few YouTube videos and trying to play a racing game at the same time. And, though it's a shame that the PlayBook doesn't ship with e-mail or calendar software, a real geek is willing to "rough it" by using web-based mail and calendar apps until RIM releases its next software update. "Amateur hour"  is over, because only a professional geek has the fortitude to work through a product's shortcomings.

Some pundits think it's wrong of RIM, HP, and others to charge full price for unfinished products. "Many things can be fixed with updates, but why should we be paying good money for hope of updates that don’t always come as fast as promised or as complete as you may be led to believe?" asks ZDNet's Matthew Miller.

Technologizer's Harry McCracken  has the right idea, saying that beta-level products should be labeled as such and that manufacturers should reward early adopters with discounts or gift certificates to the app store. However, it's important to remember that you're not just doing RIM a favor when you buy its PlayBook for $500. You're buying entrance into an exclusive club of early adopters who get a chance to not only see the future, but influence it.

It's worth at least $500 to be able to say you were into Blackberry Tablet OS or webOS 3 "way before it was cool."  A real geek knows this and is willing to pay that money, even if it means skipping the occasional vacation.

In fact we owe, the RIMs and HPs of the word more than just our money. We owe them our gratitude for giving us the opportunity to get past the silicon rope and gain early access to their clubs. Who cares if the lights don't all work or if the bar is out of drinks; that's the price of admission when you want to live in the future.

Author Bio
Avram Piltch
Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director
The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.
Avram Piltch, LAPTOP Online Editorial Director on
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  • sam Says:

    At this point the reset of the industry is gun shy when it goes to competing with Apple in the tablet market. Android does not seem to be working, RIM and HP are not cutting it - maybe Windows 8 is the answer. While it is not apparent yet, this is a problem in the smartphone market as well but as the rest of the industry has been taking much smaller margins and selling phone for much less than Apple they have been able to move them some.

  • i told u Says:

    def true I like this article because he explains why companies do what they do, and not just bash them for doing it with no logical reason for doing so. We all know RIM is fading fast and needed to get the playbook out asap, though didnt do much. Hp is in the same boat (though they have alot more captial, and the homebrew hacker community already has 3 patchs that fix all the problems even before the OTA update). Both these companies to me has an excuse, android on the other hand does not. They have been in the tablet game for awhile, and there should be no reason why HP has more optimized apps for tablets then they do, and why their units are not running 100% like the ipad by now. If the OTA update for the touchpad does what they say it will on 07/25, then Apple has something to worry about IMO.

  • biff Says:

    I would love to be a beta tester. Especially if the products were free and if I was being paid for my time.

    But buying a tablet for over 500 dollars, and simultaneously signing up for a two year data contract, while reading internal memos from HP execs that amount to "Don't worry guys, we'll get it right next time" is insulting. Hearing that "firmware updates are on their way" is ridiculous. At 500 dollars and above, with a clear competitor comparably priced, it needs to work now.

    There are some things that should never be "beta tested" on the unsuspecting. Ridiculously expensive consumer electronics is in that category. Parachutes, surgical equipment, airplanes... even if its new and innovative, get it right by release time.

  • Avram Piltch Says:

    I was being a little tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time, I do think it's good that these companies are giving us a sneak peek at their stuff. The only problem is that they need to acknowledge that it's a sneak peek.

  • Jason Dunn Says:

    Haha...what a deliciously sarcastic piece Avram! :-) Thank you for setting me straight - I'm feeling guilty now for returning the Motorola XOOM to Best Buy for a refund...I should have realized I had a golden opportunity to be a beta tester for only $599!

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