In the software world, a product goes through (basically) three testing phases before release.
First, in the ‘alpha’ phase, nobody is pretending that the product is totally stable or ready for mission-critical use. It is more of a ‘proof of concept’ where the product can be demonstrated and it has potential, but it’s nowhere near ready for prime time. In commercial software, regular users never get to see ‘alpha’ releases. In the open-source world, daring users usually can.
Second, in the ‘beta’ phase, the software is (or at least should-be) showing real promise. It’s mostly functional, though it might still have some bugs, and it’s ‘feature-complete’. These days, some products—like Google’s GMail email software—remain in ‘beta’ phase forever. Often commercial software makers like Microsoft will make betas of their products available to early adopters who are willing to take the risk.
The third and final phase before release is the ‘release candidate’ phase. In this phase, the product is done and—if no ‘showstopper’ bugs are discovered—the release candidate will become the final product.
One of my favorite open source software projects, the Haiku Operating System, hasn’t even reached the ‘alpha’ phase yet. The developers, for whatever reason, feel that the operating system as it stands today is still in a relatively early development phase. This is a shame, as every time I fire up a new Haiku virtual machine it’s more stable, more capable, and runs longer without crashes—to the point that a daring user with relatively limited needs can use Haiku full-time if they really want to. Its stability is certainly better than anything in the Microsoft Windows 95/98/ME line, and lots of us used those every day for many years.
Personally, I think it’s time to declare Haiku an alpha product; in fact I’d even say it’s approaching beta quality. The Haiku team has a number of bugs marked as ‘blockers’ for an alpha release, but alphas aren’t supposed to be bug-free (or even stable) so—in my humble-outsider’s opinion—let’s throw the switch and generate some buzz!
If you want to know more about where Haiku stands today, check out Thom Holwerda’s excellent review on OSNews.com.