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Tablet Makers: Thanks for Letting Us Beta Test With You

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.