Is it worth living on the cutting edge of every beta, running the dev build of your browser, the pre-release version of your operating system or being the first to grab a new gadget? It's tempting to think that new is obviously better, but when function is paramount, it may not be worth it to jump on every new release.
What You Get From The Bleeding Edge
Many of us jump on the beta bandwagon because of a new feature or performance improvement that's yet to become available in a stable release — something that we have to have right now. Some of us are just really into technology and enjoy having the latest and greatest long before it hits the public, like those of us who are already using Windows 8 RTM as their primary operating systems. Photo by Jorge Alberto Mussuto.
The catch to living on the bleeding edge is that you've explicitly signed up your time and energy to fix problems when something stops working — whether by troubleshooting the problem yourself or working with the developer. A beta is supposed to be just that: a time when developers and users test new features, give and get feedback, and fix bugs and errors. When was the last time you submitted a bug report or offered feedback for a beta you were using — or the last time you grabbed a beta for a shiny new feature and then switched back when that feature made it into the stable release?
It's worth asking yourself what tangible benefits you expect from downloading beta releases of your operating system or grabbing nightly builds of your favourite browser. Are you still enjoying that benefit?
Not All Betas Are Created Equal: Speed Vs Features
Some betas improve the overall performance of a product, and it often makes sense to use these releases. For example, it's a good idea to install nightly builds of popular media centre application XBMC because the product is being updated all the time. On the other hand, betas that introduce new features over performance enhancements, such as iOS or Android apps, aren't worth downloading every single time — unless you like finding out half of your apps don't work or your device is only partially supported.
When Apple or Microsoft releases a new OS patch, you'll naturally want to grab it. But when there's a dev build of the next Mac OS X or a Windows Consumer Preview, most people won't install it right away due to fear of breaking something. The issue becomes one of risk versus reward: we expect apps like XBMC to roll out betas that largely work without major issues. And if there is a major issue, tomorrow's nightly will fix the problem. However, with huge software products like Android, iOS, Windows or OS X, we shy away from those betas (at least on our primary systems) because we know they come with the inherent risk that we'll brick our phones or break our computers.
Is It Still Worth Living On The Bleeding Edge?
It was once common knowledge that if you were using betas, alphas and other pre-release software, you should expect bugs and potential problems. And if you wanted to download them, you should be a willing tester or (particularly in the case of open-source software) a developer willing to dive in and submit changes to the original developers of the application. Now, thanks in part to services like Gmail diluting the meaning of "beta", a beta sticker reads more like "new!"
It's important to remind yourself that choosing to run bleeding-edge software also means you're willing to play Russian roulette with your productivity.
When we tossed the question around at Lifehacker HQ, many of us confessed to enjoying new, beta features as soon as they become available. But as app categories like browsers or to-do apps mature, the tangible benefits from a beta are fewer than ever. It's our job to be the canary in the coalmine, and we do it gladly. But there's a point of diminishing return for most people where the bleeding edge just isn't worth it. When was the last time you got a new feature in a Chrome beta you just couldn't live without? Now remember the last time a Chrome beta broke one of your favourite sites. Odds are the latter happens more often than the former.
Some developers use the beta tag as a shield so they can change things and avoid accountability to their users. The Gmail "beta" started that trend: stay in beta for years but make your beta public, amass thousands of users (or millions in Gmail's case), make changes at any time. If something breaks, you get to say: "Well, we are in beta, after all."
Lately, the trend has shifted to other web apps: launch a public beta before your product is even close to finished so users feel they're getting features that were on your roadmap from the beginning. Once all that development is finished though, does the beta continue? Was it worth it to participate, or would it have been better to wait until the tool was finished?
Ultimately, it's a matter of individual taste: if you feel that bleeding-edge applications have given you work-changing features faster than you would normally get them, and you're enjoying the benefits more than you've suffered the detriments, then great. At the same time, as our own Adam Pash pointed out: "The more time I spend in technology, the less excited I am about the bleeding edge — not because it's not worthwhile, but because my priorities have changed. More often than not, my time is more valuable to me than that shiny new feature."
When it comes to bleeding edge software, what are your priorities? Tell us in the comments.