What do Alpha and Beta mean?
“Alpha” and “Beta” are titles the Software industry uses for software that isn’t quiiiiiiiite finished yet. Generally, these products aren’t generally available, are likely to change quickly, might not be well documented and might misfire in spectacular and sometimes unpleasant ways. Both of these terms describe software that is expected to have bugs, but they refer to different levels of bugginess.
An Alpha usually refers to software that’s very early on it its development cycle. It’s often just barely ready for use, with highly limited features, plenty of bugs and stability issues. Some companies use the term to refer to software that is in use internally but doesn’t have any external customers yet.
A Beta is a product that’s mostly ready for use. It might still be lacking some features and have a few bugs, but it’s generally able to do what it’s supposed too, most of the time. Some companies do lengthy betas; others mark everything they release as a beta for a few weeks.
(This isn’t always the case. Google famously kept Gmail in beta for five years, despite it being stable and used by millions of people. Read more about that over on Slate.)
What is Closed and Open?
Alphas and Betas can be “Closed” or “Open”. Closed means the program is invite only; Customers can’t sign up on their own. Open means the program is generally available; Any customer can access it, kick the tyres and see what they think.
Do Alphas and Betas cost money to participate in?
It depends! Alphas are usually only internal, or provided to a very small set of customers. Those are usually paying customers.
Some companies only allow existing paying customers to participate in Open Betas; some make products free in Beta then charge once they release.
Why do companies and customers provide/participate in Alphas and Betas?
Companies usually provide Alpha and Beta products to their users in order to get useful product feedback and shake out all the bugs. In return, customers get access to features early (and sometimes for free) and get to provide useful feedback that can change how features work to suit them better